Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bryce Harper Makes MLB Debut

Nearly three years after SI's Tom Verducci tabbed then 16 year-old Bryce Harper as baseball's LeBron James and two years after the Washington Nationals selected him with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, the phenom was called up to the Show yesterday and made his highly anticipated debut.  It was only fitting, then, that his career began where many stars are born; in Los Angeles, California, the land of Hollywood and celebrities.  Harper, 19 and a half now, batted seventh and started in left field to make him the youngest player in baseball right now.  Boos mixed with cheers as he walked up to the plate in the top of the second inning as fans whipped out cameras and cell phones to capture the moment.  Two outs, bases empty, and the score tied at zero as he stepped in against Chad Billingsley.  Harper worked the count to 2-1 before chopping a grounder back to Billingsley, who threw over to James Loney at first to retire Harper and the side.  Harper, to his credit, sprinted all the way and nearly made the play close.  In the bottom of the inning he caught a lazy fly ball off the bat of Jerry Hairston to record his first major league putout.

His second at-bat came in the fifth inning with the score still knotted at zero.  This time there was one out and Rick Ankiel on first after leading off the frame with a single.  Harper again ran the count to 2-1, but swung at a tough pitch (outside corner at the knees), hit it off the end of the bat and lifted an easy fly ball to Tony Gwynn Jr. in left field.  Visibly frustrated, Harper pounded his chest as he turned back towards the dugout.

Harper speeds into second with his first major league hit, a double
His third at-bat went much better.  Adam LaRoche had led off the inning with a home run to give Washington a 1-0 lead, but Billingsley bounced back to fan Ankiel and Danny Espinosa.  Harper battled until the pitcher to a full count, then pounced on a fastball up in the zone, parallel to the letters on his jersey, and smoked a line drive to deep center, over the head of Matt Kemp that bounced off the base of the wall.  Sprinting into second base like his pants were on fire, Harper pulled a Manny Ramirez and flipped off his helmet after rounding first.  In the bottom of the frame with runners on first and second, A.J. Ellis roped a ground ball single through the hole between second and third.  The converted catcher, known for his powerful arm, unleashed a perfect throw to Wilson Ramos at the plate that arrived just in time to beat Jerry Hairston, only the baseball popped out of Ramos's glove as he applied the tag and the run scored, tying the game at one.

In the top of the ninth the score was still even at one apiece as Harper dug in against Javy Guerra, the major league leader in saves.  With runners on the corners and only one out, Harper had a chance to give his team the lead and didn't disappoint.  He seized the opportunity by jumping at the first pitch he saw, lacing an opposite field line drive right at Gwynn Jr. plenty deep enough to score Ankiel, advance Espinosa to second on the throw and give the Nats a 2-1 lead on his sacrifice fly.  When Ramos followed with an RBI single to double the lead, it looked as if Harper would be credited with a game-winning RBI in his major league debut.

Alas, it was not to be. Drew Storen's replacement Henry Rodriguez came in and blew the save.  After allowing LA to cut the lead in half on a Juan Uribe double, he had two strikes on Dee Gordon, the Dodgers' light-hitting shortstop, with two outs.  Just one strike away from victory, he uncorked a wild pitch, his second of the inning, and Uribe dashed home to tie the score.  The game went to extras, but unfortunately Harper didn't get another chance to do inflict any more damage.  Washington went down 1-2-3 in the top of the tenth against Jamey Wright, and Kemp, the hottest hitter on the planet right now along with Josh Hamilton, led off the bottom of the frame with a two-strike walk-off homer to center field off Tom Gorzelanny, who'd relieved Rodriguez the inning before and do what his predecessor couldn't; get the crucial third out (with runners on second and third, to boot).

Many, myself included, were surprised to see Harper called up so soon given that he wasn't exactly setting the world on fire for AAA Syracuse, seeing as how he batted just .250/.333/.375 with one home run in 82 plate appearances there.   All along, the organization maintained that they would not rush their budding superstar to the majors, that they would make sure he was ready, although it was clear that they wanted him to make his debut this season.  To be fair, they let him get a taste of all three minor league levels when many stars skip AAA ball altogether.  He began 2011 playing for the Hagerstown Suns, where he tore the cover off the ball with a .973 OPS, had his home runs replayed on Sportscenter and earned a promotion to AA Harrisburg after 72 games.  He struggled with the Senators, batting .256//.329/.395 with three home runs in 37 games.  Nonetheless, the Nationals invited him to spring training this year, and he nearly made the team before getting sent down to Syracuse.  Although his numbers there were unimpressive, scouts maintain that he did not look "overmatched."

I still think it's a curious move by the Nats, who were 14-6 heading into yesterday's game.  Because of their lights out starting pitching from Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler, they have a stranglehold on the NL East.  It's not like they were slumping midseason and needed a spark, which many minor league callups seem to be (a quick fix designed to inject some energy during the dog says of summer). With Mike Morse and Ryan Zimmerman both on the DL, the lineup is thin and needs all the help it can get, but I usually say if it aint broke, don't fix it.  Still, it's understandable that they would want to do everything in their power to sustain this hot start for as long as possible, because this club hasn't  enjoyed a winning season since moving to the nation's capitol.  Now that they're finally winning, they just want to keep the good times rolling, and who can blame them for that?  Harper will certainly draw more fans to the ballpark, and could supply some timely hitting while Morse and Zim are on the mend.  If yesterday was any indication, Harper knows how to work the pitcher and get himself into hitter's counts.  He didn't look overly anxious given the amount of hype and media attention he's attracted at such a young age.  Harper could hit the ground running and key a playoff run a la Buster Posey in 2010.
The sky is the limit for Harper, who doesn't turn 20 until October 16th
But it's just one game. Maybe Harper will struggle and return to AAA for more seasoning; that's what the Angels did with their own teenage superstar Mike Trout (who some have likened to Mickey Mantle) last summer.  It depends how long the leash is, how quickly he can adapt to big league pitching, and how soon opposing hurlers can figure out the holes in his swing.  Maybe he'll be the monster many have expected him to be and win NL Rookie of the Year after leading the Nationals to the postseason a few seasons ahead of schedule. 

Nobody knows.  But regardless of what Harper does or doesn't do on the baseball diamond this year, for the first time in a long time, it's shaping up to be an interesting summer for baseball in the District of Columbia.

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