Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 3, 2012

Whether He’s Ready Or Not, It’s Bryce Harper Time

After coming within a game of .500 last season, the Washington Nationals came into the 2012 campaign figuring to be improved, and perhaps within a year or so of truly contending for a playoff spot. Their off-season acquisitions of pitchers Gio Gonzalez by trade and Edwin Jackson through free agency bolstered an already strong starting rotation. The offense was expected to be anchored by outfielder Michael Morse and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. In 2011 Morse trailed only Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, and Prince Fielder in NL slugging percentage. Zimmerman, the face of the franchise since his rookie year in 2005, was inked to a long-term contract extension in February, virtually guaranteeing that he will be that increasingly rare player who spends his entire career with one team. Sometime during the season, and every indication from management was that it would be later rather than sooner, teenage prodigy Bryce Harper would be called up to the big club from AAA Syracuse. For a team that last boasted a winning record in 2003, its next to last season in Montreal, the future appeared tantalizingly bright.

Three weeks into the new season the Nats had a record that made it look like they weren’t interested in waiting a year or two for anything. After splitting their first four games, they won twelve of the next fourteen to sit atop the NL East at a gaudy 14-4. But there was a smoke and mirrors quality to that impressive start. Washington’s pitching was everything it promised to be and more. The team was surrendering just 2.67 runs per game, and only twice in the first eighteen contests did an opponent tally five or more runs. But the pitching had to be that good, because Washington’s offense was often nowhere to be found. Through the first three weeks the Nationals scored five or more runs just five times; and eight games were decided by a single run, with Washington winning six. Cleanup hitter Morse had yet to play a game because of a strained back muscle. Then fifteen games into the season Zimmerman was placed on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.

Washington’s near total reliance on its pitching virtually guaranteed that at some point the team would take a tumble. That point came this past week, and the manner in which it did had to alarm GM Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson. Beginning with the final game of a three game set in San Diego, and then continuing on through a weekend series in Los Angeles and the first game back at home against Arizona, the Nationals lost five straight games. But in those games they got five straight quality starts from their starting pitchers, part of a string of nine consecutive games in which the Nationals’ starter went at least six innings while surrendering no more than three earned runs. Most teams can only dream of going once through the rotation with every starter performing that well; Washington nearly did it two complete times. Yet their record for those nine games was just 4-5. A loss in April counts just as much in the final standings as one in the final week of the regular season. The five game losing streak was a wholesale squandering of talent and potential.

In the five straight losses the team scored a total of just seven runs. As the string of setbacks mounted, and with the team’s batting average hovering barely above .225, Morse out until June and Zimmerman still days away from returning, Rizzo clearly had to do something to improve Washington’s production at the plate. With few other viable options, he abandoned the plan to give Harper more time in the minors, and brought the 19-year old who was the first overall pick in the 2010 draft up from AAA.

Harper’s arrival didn’t immediately turn things around for the Nats. He was in the lineup batting seventh for the last three losses, during which he went 2 for 9. But even while Nats fans were waiting for Harper to prove he could hit major league pitching, he was displaying his all-around ability. He made several fine catches in the outfield; and twice displayed a cannon of an arm, only to be robbed of assists by bad calls.

In his debut at Dodger Stadium, Harper fielded an A. J. Ellis single in the 7th inning and fired a strike to home plate that arrived in plenty of time to cut down Jerry Hairston Jr., who was trying to score from second. The umpire called Hairston safe when it appeared that catcher Wilson Ramos dropped the ball while applying the tag; but replays clearly showed that Hairston swiped the ball out of Ramos’ glove and should have been called out for interference.

Then on Tuesday, in his first game at Nationals Park, Harper parked himself under a deep fly ball off the bat of Arizona’s Justin Upton. With John MacDonald tagging at third, the play had the look of a routine sacrifice fly. Instead Harper fired a laser to the plate, and once again replays left no doubt that Ramos applied the tag before the runner touched the plate. Perhaps because the idea that the play would even be close never occurred to him, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson called MacDonald safe. While the play ultimately made little difference in the outcome of the 5-1 Arizona victory, Harper’s remarkable throw drew gasps and cheers from the crowd.

Finally on Wednesday Harper showed his offensive skills as the Nationals broke out of their slump, coming from behind twice to beat the Diamondbacks 5-4. The teenager went 3 for 4 with a pair of doubles, two runs scored and an RBI. In the bottom of the 4th he just missed his first big league home run, doubling high off the center field wall to score Danny Espinosa, knotting the score at 2-2. Moments later Harper raced home when a hard grounder by Ramos got away from second baseman Aaron Hill. With a hard slide he shook the ball loose from catcher Miguel Montero to give Washington the lead. Five innings later with the Nats down to their final at bats and trailing 4-3, he led off the 9th with another double, and scored on Ian Desmond’s walk-off two-run homer.

On the strength of his first big night at the plate, manager Johnson is moving Harper from seventh to third in the batting order. Now that he’s made it to the show, the kid of course doesn’t want to leave. Given the paucity of offense that Washington produced in the first month of the season, it may be difficult to demote him even assuming that the Nats veteran players eventually get healthy. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

While Harper seems to be trying hard to say the right things and act the right way since his call-up, in his short professional career the teenager has had some remarkably immature moments; such as blowing a kiss to an opposing pitcher after smacking a home run in a minor league game last year. When he stroked his first major league hit against the Dodgers, Harper accidentally on purpose knocked his own batting helmet off so he could race into second bareheaded. Humility is perhaps understandably hard to come by for someone who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year old. A few dozen more lengthy minor league bus rides might have helped on that front; indeed Rizzo’s original plan to bring Harper along slowly always seemed to be as much about giving him time to mature as a person as it was about allowing him to grow as a player. But events have overrun that plan, and Rizzo, Johnson, and the Nationals will have to hope that the 19-year old can grow up while standing in the bright spotlight of the major leagues. For Washington, the Bryce Harper era has begun.

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