WASHINGTON – He stood before his new home dugout Tuesday, a man with a boy's birthdate, and it was as if Bryce Harper knew he belonged here all along.
Those months spent in the minor leagues were wrought with more anguish than they were worth. In his 19-year-old mind they were an intrusion that kept him from his destiny. And so a strange thing happened to him when he stepped on the field in Los Angeles last weekend.
The pressure that had churned inside him – pushing, driving, demanding – went away. The cocksure smirk disappeared from his face. The temptation to blow a kiss at a pitcher, as he did last summer, was gone. In their place was a player who looked as if he had come to the end of a long, torturous journey – albeit a rocketing rise through the Washington Nationals minor-league system.
"I felt very comfortable," he said of his arrival to the big leagues. "When I was in Triple-A and the minors I was like: 'I've got to prove myself and try and get up here.' "
The Nationals seemed to understand this about the player who might be the best prospect in years. Perhaps two more months in Triple-A Syracuse might have taught him something about hitting a curveball, but it would have torn him to pieces. He needs to be in the majors.
Davey Johnson gets it. Twenty-nine years ago as the manger of the Triple-A Tidewater Tides, he sent a 21-year-old Darryl Strawberry to the big leagues despite just 16 games at that level. There was no point in keeping him in the minors.
A year later when Johnson was named manager of the New York Mets, he put a 19-year-old Dwight Gooden in the big league rotation even though Gooden had just one season in the low minor leagues. Like Strawberry, Gooden was ready. Why make him wait?
"Again, don't think age," Johnson said Tuesday as he stood outside the Nationals’ clubhouse. "You think of talent and how they handle it."
To Johnson the question about Harper had less to do with his youth or the .250 batting average and one home run his new outfielder had at Syracuse and more about Harper's mind. Triple-A wasn't making him better anymore. He needed a challenge.
That's something Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson understands as well as anyone. Years ago he was a kind of Bryce Harper, a left-handed power hitter with massive potential and an aggressive, fearless style. On Tuesday, Gibson pondered the torture that two half-seasons in the minor leagues were for him. He remembered how he hit .240 and .245 in those half-years and realized the thing missing was a challenge.
"It's not like he's tearing it up," Gibson said of Harper's minor-league stats before adding: "He's a guy who will adapt and play better with better competition. My guess is that he wants (the new pressure of the big leagues). It will make him better."
Harper has shown something special in every big-league game. The first night in Los Angeles, he unleashed a brilliant throw to the plate, drilled a double off the center-field wall and hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly. The next day he crashed into the fence to take away an extra-base hit. On Tuesday he made a running catch and also let go with a more than 300-foot throw that reached the catcher on the fly. It is easy to see he is going to be great.
Johnson believes a player is ready when he understands the strike zone. For a young pitcher like Gooden, that meant consistently throwing strikes. For a hitter like Harper, it means holding back on sliders that bounce in the dirt. It sounds simple but often it takes young players years to master these things. Harper, he said, has an unusual grasp of balls and strikes. The rest, he figures, will follow.
Harper looked awful in his first at-bat Tuesday, striking out against Arizona's Trevor Cahill. The next at-bat he adjusted and sent a ground ball screaming up the middle for what would have been a base hit had Diamondbacks shortstop John McDonald not shifted toward right field for the left-handed Harper.
Harper later said it had been years since he had seen a shift against him. The last time, he figured, was in 2010 when he was in junior college. Nobody in the minors had done it. In the majors, many teams will. A challenge.
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"I hit the ball through (Cahill's) legs," he said. "I thought it was a base hit."
That it wasn't seemed to both frustrate and intrigue him. Another mountain to climb. Another problem to solve. His eyes almost danced.
This will indeed make him better.
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