- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2012

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Most mornings, Bryce Harper sits at his locker inside the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse and chats quietly with Jason Michaels.

On the left sits the game’s most hyped power-hitting prospect in a generation, a 19-year-old whose body doesn’t belie his youth and who’s assured a starting job upon his arrival in the major leagues. On the right is a 35-year-old veteran with parts of the past 11 years in the majors and five organizations on his resume just trying to make the Nationals’ bench.

“It makes me feel younger,” Michaels said last week, a smile crossing his face at the mention of the 16-year age gap between them.

As the words came out of his mouth, veteran Mark DeRosa walked by, paused and shot Michaels a quizzical look.

“Who are you talking about?” he asked. Told it was Harper, DeRosa nodded.

“I think he’s going to be all right,” he said, and continued on toward the clubhouse kitchen. Understating, of course, what everyone hopes and predicts what Harper will ultimately be but perfectly stating the way Harper has been treated by the rest of his teammates this spring.

Two weeks have passed since Harper arrived in major league camp and announced he was ready to “keep my mouth shut and play.” The fanfare that follows him daily seems to have subsided some, and the attitude that he carried into last spring appears to have gone with it. Quite simply, Harper fits in.

“It’s hard to kind of find that zone,” said Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond. “You don’t want to be sitting by yourself and have everybody think that you’re too good for them - but at the same time, you don’t want to be all up in everyone’s face, either.

“I think last year he realized he was maybe a little bit too abrasive, and this year he’s toned it down a notch. He’s a little more humble. He realizes that the job is his and he’s trying to do everything he can to get it. I’m pulling for him, to be honest.”

And if anything that’s perhaps the most common sentiment in the clubhouse this spring. If Harper can make this team better — this team bubbling on the brink of what it feels is something special — then everyone is on board to help him reach his potential.

He’s been given as much of a shot early in spring as one could expect, logging more at-bats (11) in the Nationals’ first four games than any other player. Only Brett Carroll, with 10, even comes close.

But it’s not an opportunity he’s been handed. Ask a member of the coaching staff about Harper, and the first words that come out this spring are “student,” and “heads-up player.” He’s working for the time he’s getting.

His swing has required minimal work — “his entire body is in sync, and it all comes together right at impact,” hitting coach Rick Eckstein said — and his mental approach to the game has raised a few eyebrows as well. In a conversation with Eckstein about a specific National League East pitcher who Harper obviously hasn’t faced, Harper laid out the pitch sequence he thought that pitcher would use against him. One, after another, after another.

All Eckstein could do was laugh — and agree.

“The one thing that I think he’s done his entire career is face competition that’s so-called older than him and make the necessary adjustments to compete at the highest level,” Eckstein said.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Harper’s natural physical ability also has wowed in camp. In four games, Harper has hit .454, put on blistering batting practice sessions, beaten out a routine grounder to third base and played solid defense in right field. His first baserunning blunder of the season came Tuesday, an error of aggression that didn’t appear to bother any of the Nationals’ staff — as long as he learns from it.

Four of his first five hits were on the ground and none has been for extra bases. That’s OK; the Nationals feel the power is coming.

“He’s so strong,” Michaels said. “There are maybe a few major leaguers who have that pop, and he’s still learning.

“Yeah,” he added. “He’s done all right.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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