Spring for­ward

The Washington Times Daily - - Weather -

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-yearold 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-yearold 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 at­bats (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.”


Rookie Bryce Harper had more at-bats (11) in the first four spring games than any other Nats player.

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