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NATIONALS: Bryce Harper Shows He’s Ready To Play Anytime, Anywhere

By ZAC BOYER | | @ZacBoyer

WASHINGTON – Mature beyond what his age may occasionally let on, Bryce Harper set out on Monday, his first off day as a major league baseball player, to connect with his adoptive city, motivated by the curiosity and energy only a 19-year-old can possess.

Born and raised in Las Vegas, Harper could only count a handful of times he had visited the nation’s capital – once on a school field trip, maybe two or three others after the Washington Nationals selected him first in the 2010 first-year player draft.

What he encountered thrilled him. A stroll around the National Mall, including stops at the White House and Lincoln Memorial, allowed him to connect with the city’s great history. But something else enthralled him – a pick-up softball game being played in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

Harper is, for slightly over five more months, a teenager. And teenagers, by nature, are given to whimsy. When players on the two teams spotted the Nationals’ new left fielder on his stroll through the park – “I think they see the rat tail [haircut] and the tattoos,” Harper cracked – he was not above giving in to an irresistible pull.

A few big hacks, a long fly ball and several pleasantries later, Harper ventured along, his attempt to earn his place in the city through his extraordinary baseball talents left to continue at Nationals Park on Tuesday.

It did. While very few of the 22,675 who showed up for Harper’s home debut in the Nationals’ 5-1 loss to Arizona saw the array of batting-practice balls he scattered in the bleachers, all were witness to what would have likely stood as the defensive play of the year: a seventh-inning, 300-foot strike on a sacrifice fly by Justin Upton that was inches behind John McDonald.

“I’m trying to play the game as hard as I can, and once I’m between those lines, nothing else matters to me,” Harper said Monday, three and a half hours before the game. “Once I leave those lines, I walk out of the stadium, I can be the nicest person in the world.”

Harper’s assertion comes in contrast to the labels that have followed him since 2009, when he left high school after his sophomore year, obtained his GED to immediately begin playing junior college baseball and began his trek to the major leagues.

But Harper alluded to being anything special only once while speaking for 15 minutes before the game, saying only his immediate goals are “to come out here, give 110 percent and try to be a game-changer.”

“I like everything about him,” said manager Davey Johnson, whose honesty would allow him criticize Harper if warranted. “I like that he’s aggressive. He’s kind of an old-school player … and he’s handled himself like a very professional athlete.”

The crowd gave Harper, whose major league debut was Saturday in Los Angeles, a standing ovation upon his introduction. A round of applause from the left field bleachers greeted him when he took the field for the first time, as it did during his first at-bat.

He saw a steady progression of off-speed pitches, including an 81 mph changeup by Arizona starter Trevor Cahill on which he struck out in the second, and his only near-hit was a chopper that McDonald handled shading toward second base in the fifth. He finished hitless in three at-bats, left on deck in the bottom of the ninth, after collecting one hit in each of his first two games against the Dodgers.

His stay in Washington may be temporary, but not for long. Ryan Zimmerman is eligible to come off the disabled list on Sunday, which may push Harper back to the minor leagues.

But in a city where excellence is permanent, and playing in its shadow is not a metaphor, Harper’s youthful excitement is hard to suppress.

“I think everything about this city is really cool,” Harper said. “Everything that happens here every single day, I think it’s just gonna be a great place to play.”


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