Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Bryce Harper leads off first base during today's game against Georgetown.
And what did they get from the 19-year-old Nationals phenom? A drag bunt. Yes, a drag bunt. Not a terribly great one either. Vander Linden managed to corral the ball to the right of the mound and toss to first base a step ahead of Harper.
This is what everyone was waiting for? The game's best power-hitting prospect trying to beat out a bunt?
"Just a bunt," Harper said later, downplaying the whole thing. "I bunted a couple times this year. Just trying to work on things in spring training."
Perhaps it's the surest sign yet of Harper's new-found maturity. He could've swung for the fences, tried to hit the ball a country mile and give everyone more reason to clamor for the Nationals to put him on the Opening Day roster.
Instead, he bunted.
"No big deal," manager Davey Johnson said following the Nationals' 3-0 exhibition victory over the Hoyas. "He was just trying to get something going there."
Harper's failed bunt attempt proved the highlight of an otherwise uneventful spring debut for the rookie outfielder. Given a chance to start in right field and bat third, he finished 0-for-2 with a walk. That free pass came on four straight balls from Hoyas starter Will Harris in the first inning. Harper also lofted a fly ball to right off reliever Tommy Isaacs in the fifth, just getting under the pitch a bit but falling victim to a 10-mph wind blowing in from right field.
"It would probably have gone out on a normal day," Johnson said.
"Uh, sure. Absolutely," Harper said with a laugh when told of his manager's claim. "I got it pretty good. I didn't get it as good as I could. But that wind howls a little bit [from] right."
In truth, this latest "debut" for Harper wasn't all that momentous. Yes, it represented the first time he got to start a spring training game. But it also came against a team of Georgetown players that under normal circumstances would be contemporaries of Harper (who should be a college freshman right now).
Harper's bigger test comes tomorrow, when he is scheduled to again start in right field (batting sixth this time) against the Astros in Kissimmee in both clubs' Grapefruit League opener. On the mound for Houston: Livan Hernandez.
This will be the first of several opportunities Harper gets this spring to face big-league pitchers and state his case for a spot on the Nationals' Opening Day roster. Unlike a year ago, when all 12 of his spring appearances came off the bench, he'll see considerable more playing time.
Along the way, Harper will look to impress the coaching staff not only with his offensive prowess but with his improved defense in right field and improved instincts on the bases.
He took a nice first step in that direction today, racing to his right to snag a sinking liner in the top of the second and later effectively cutting off a base hit to his left and making a nice throw back to the infield to hold the batter to a single.
Harper also showed his keen eye at the plate in the first inning when with a man in scoring position he took four straight balls, refusing to expand his strike zone in search of an RBI.
"I think that's the biggest thing right now, try to see as many pitches as I can and not chase," he said. "Get my walks up and strikeouts down. I felt good up there. He didn't give me a pitch I could drive."
By the sixth inning, Harper's day was done. Minor-leaguer Michael Taylor took his spot in right and Harper ran through his conditioning drills on the warning track.
Unlike the veterans on the roster who are free to leave early, Harper stuck around through the end of the game. He showered and changed, doffed a camouflage Duke cap as he took questions from reporters and then made plans to return tomorrow morning for the trip to Kissimmee and the next step of his spring-training quest to make the Opening Day roster at 19.
To hear him say it, this was no more important event than the previous day or the next day. It was just another day at the ballpark, Harper's favorite place in the world.
"I was really excited today," he said. "I was really excited to get out there on the field and get into the swing of things. And I'm going to be excited tomorrow and the next day. Every game I play I get real excited. Running out to center field, I got chills really bad. I think that's how things happen with me."