Timothy Jacobsen, File, Associated Press
HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Bryce Harper took an outside strike and shot a disapproving glance at the umpire.
It shouldn't have been a surprise to the young phenom. The ump had been calling them wide all game. Showing displeasure now — with a man on base in the seventh inning when his team needed runs — was hardly going to help.
Three pitches later, Harper struck out by flailing at a pitch that was well outside with the runner going. Another lesson learned by a teenager navigating the backwaters of minor league baseball.
Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated when he was 16 and accelerated his way into college, setting himself up to be the No. 1 overall pick by the Washington Nationals in last year's draft. He signed a $9.9 million contract, the biggest payday for a drafted position player.
He added to his legacy shortly after joining the Single-A Hagerstown Suns, when he emerged from a slow start and went on an 18-game hitting streak, to the point that he's now among the South Atlantic League leaders in batting average and homers (.338 and 13 through Sunday's games). He attributed the turnaround to new contact lenses, saying he was "blind as a bat" until he got them on April 18 — an instant-legend anecdote that no doubt is already finding its way into a movie script.
Nationals fans are, of course, paying attention. Some have started clamoring for Harper's promotion to the big club. If not now, then very soon. Washington is in last place in the NL East and one of the worst-hitting teams in the majors, so why take the long, slow road with the kid?
The answer, for those who see Harper every day, is an easy one. There are dozens of things, from obvious to subtle and tangible to intangible, that go into making a major league baseball player. Maturity. Baserunning. Learning to work the count. Dealing with the grind. Attitude. Adjusting to umpires. Meshing with teammates in the clubhouse.
Harper has a head start on most of them, but he's mastered maybe three. He's got a major league arm in the outfield, a powerful swing and is very competitive. Everything else is a work in progress for an 18-year-old who, in another world, would right now be rehashing tales from his senior prom.
"One of the biggest sins you can make is putting guys into position where they're going to fail early," said Doug Harris, who keeps a close in-person eye on Harper as the Nationals' director of player development. "We're really committed, but lay the blocks before we try to put in some chandeliers and some granite countertops. We want to make sure we've built a good foundation, not only on the field but in the clubhouse."
Harper validated Harris' point perfectly in a game last Thursday. While the headline will forever record that Harper hit his first walkoff homer with the Suns — a two-run shot in the bottom of the 10th for a 9-8 win over Greenville — the details reveal that earlier in the game he was twice erased from the bases by simple mistakes. He was picked off in the first inning, then got caught in a rundown in the fifth trying to advance on a ball in the dirt.
Harper shrugged off both miscues, chalking them up to things that just happen in a game.
"They got me when I was leaning," he said of the pickoff, and he attributed the rundown to a good play made by the catcher. It's part of a recurring theme — he's been embarrassed more than once trying to snag an extra 90 feet this season.
"He's a very aggressive player, which is great," said Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach, who played eight seasons in the majors, mixed in with parts of 14 years in the minors. "It's always easier to rein a guy in a little bit instead of getting a passive guy to play aggressive and take extra bases. We talk about the right situations to be aggressive, just really trying to think before the play happens."
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