Not quite two years after he was the top overall pick in Major League Baseball’s draft, Washington outfielder Bryce Harper will make his home debut tonight against Arizona.
Harper’s first game at Nats Park won’t have all the hoopla of 2009 top overall pick Stephen Strasburg’s debut, in part because the latter is a starting pitcher and in part because Harper already played in two games over the weekend at Los Angeles.
If not for wild-armed reliever Henry Rodriguez’s ninth-inning meltdown and a bobble by catcher Wilson Ramos during the seventh inning on the rookie’s tremendous throw to the plate, the 19-year-old Harper would have been the hero on Saturday night.
After failing to reach base on either of his first two at-bats, Harper lashed a double to deep center field in the seventh. In characteristic “watch me” fashion, he tossed off his batting helmet as he steamed between first and second base.
When Washington took the field in the bottom of the inning, Harper uncorked a bullet from left field that would have nailed former Nat Jerry Hairston Jr. at the plate if not for Ramos’ miscue.
And in the ninth, Harper smacked a sacrifice fly that scored Rick Ankiel with the go-ahead run. Ramos extended the lead to 3-1, but Rodriguez couldn’t hold it and the Dodgers won 4-3.
On Sunday, Harper singled for one of Washington’s four hits, keeping his average at .333 as the Nats headed home with their glorious 14-4 start having turned into a still-solid 14-8 record that still leads the National League East.
With All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the shelf this week and 2011 slugging surprise Michael Morse sidelined until mid-season, Washington’s offense has become all about resurgent first baseman Adam LaRoche and Harper.
Two games and six at-bats are a blip, but the kid certainly seemed like he belonged as he faced the league-leading Dodgers and their fine pitchers Chad Billingsley and Chris Capuano.
Ankiel may be a fine center fielder, but the weak-hitting Nats (.226 average, .328 slugging percentage) could certainly use Harper’s bat now and going forward.
Arizona’s pitching is not as formidable as Los Angeles’ so fans who come to Nats Park the next three nights might just get to see history in the form of Harper’s first big league homer.
While legendary center fielder Mickey Mantle went back to the minors for six weeks after debuting at 19 in 1951, fellow Hall of Famers Mel Ott (broke in at 17), Al Kaline (18) and Robin Yount (18) fared well enough as teenagers that they never returned to the farm. Nor did (except for a one-game conditioning assignment when he was 25) Ken Griffey Jr., who debuted at 19 and will soon join them in Cooperstown.
It’s too soon to say that Harper will become a major league regular, let alone a star, or even one day be worthy of enshrinement, but if I were going to Nats Park tonight (or better yet if I had been in Chavez Ravine three nights ago), I would hang onto my ticket stub. I’m confident that it will be worth more than the one I still have from Pete Broberg’s June 20, 1971 debut at RFK Stadium.
The last first-round pick ever by the late, lamented Washington Senators of my youth, Broberg jumped right from Dartmouth to the majors. He allowed just three hits over six and a third innings, striking out seven in Washington’s 4-3 loss to Boston. Broberg went on to compile a 41-71 record with a 4.56 ERA during an eight-year career for five clubs. Bet on Harper’s career being plenty more memorable.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March.