- - Saturday, April 28, 2012

LOS ANGELES — Bryce Harper joined the Nationals on Saturday night, and the general theme of his teammates, coaches and manager Davey Johnson was that baseball is just baseball.

The bases are still 90 feet apart, the mound is 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate, and there are still three outs in every inning. They talked about Harper being a confident player who shouldn’t let himself be overwhelmed by his much-anticipated debut in Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“I’m not really nervous right now,” said the 19-year-old Harper, the first selection in the 2010 draft who signed for $9.9 million. “This is a huge step, and I’m going to take my time and smile.”

The game may be the same, but the atmosphere around the Nationals dugout and clubhouse were visibly different from a night earlier.

Before Friday’s game, there were about a dozen media members questioning Johnson, most of which were from the Washington area. It was a West Coast game with a deadline too late for newspapers to get a game story in the print edition. 

Before Saturday’s game, there were more than 40 media representatives crowding around Harper and Johnson in the visitors’ dugout. Southern California media outlets covering the Dodgers were in the dugout. There were reporters from Las Vegas (Harper’s home town) and Minnesota, as well as those from national outlets.

When the batting order was announced on the public address system, the first six names were met with silence. Applause greeted the words, “Batting seventh, in left field, Bryce Harper.”

The game was close to a sellout. The call-up of Harper might not have been the reason for the near-capacity crowd. Stephen Strasburg being the starting pitcher and promotion night giving away bobbleheads of Dodger greats Don Drysdale and Maury Wills could have been a bigger factor.

The road to the big leagues for Harper came after 129 minor league games and a 7 1/2-hour flight from Syracuse, N.Y.

“I got in at 1:30 p.m.,” said Harper, a 6-foot-3 left-handed batter. “I got up at seven in the morning and I was able to get some sleep.”

Harper had a unique Friday. His Triple-A game was postponed because of whether.

“I saw my name wasn’t in the lineup, and I was shocked,” Harper said. “Beas [Syracuse manager Tony Beasley] gave me the news, and I was a little surprised. It was 26 degrees when I left Syracuse. It’s a little different out here.”

Johnson said he signed a professional contract at 19, after spending a year at Texas A&M.

He also remembered another 19-year-old who made a pretty spectacular debut when he managed the New York Mets, his first team, 28 years ago. Dwight Gooden went 17-9 with a 2.60 ERA in 1984.

Bryce is so good my concern is that he might try to do too much,” said Johnson, who had half-jokingly told Harper that he was being send to Triple-A so he wouldn’t have to answer questions about whether Harper needed more seasoning. “I was pretty smart in high school, but I never would have thought to get a GED early like Harper did.”

Harper knew a lot of his teammates from spring training and said he learned to handle things in a more mature manner this year.

“If you are in Syracuse or [Double-A] Hagerstown, your mind can’t be in D.C.,” Harper said. “I learned in spring training to just shut up and play ball.”

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