Surprise: Harper to play center field tonight (updated again)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Bryce Harper won’t just be returning to the lineup tonight for the first time in a week after suffering a left calf injury. He’ll also be playing center field.

After a late lineup change, Harper will get the start in center for the Nationals tonight, with Roger Bernadina moving over to right field and Eury Perez manning left field.

Update: Bernadina has been scratched from tonight’s lineup because he’s experiencing lightheadedness after having a tooth pulled yesterday.

Mark Teahen will take over Bernadina’s eight-spot in the lineup and will play left field, with Perez sliding over to right.

Tonight marks Harper’s first appearance in center this spring, but he has a decent amount of experience at the position. The 19-year-old played 20 games in center last season, all at Low Single-A Hagerstown.

Manager Davey Johnson made the decision to slot Harper in center because of a hamstring injury to Rick Ankiel, but also because he wants to give Harper a chance to see time at various outfield spots.

“He runs good. He’s 19,” Johnson said. “I asked him what he’d think (about playing center) and Bryce was like ‘Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!’ But it’s just getting his at-bats. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who can throw and run like he can should have experience in all the outfield positions if you’re going to play him in the outfield.

“I will predominantly play him in right so he can be comfortable. Now that he’s a little comfortable in his second spring up here, I’ll move him around.”

It’s easy for us to forget that not too long ago, Harper was getting his defensive work behind the plate. He’s adjusted to the outfield fairly smoothly, all things considered, and the Nats will continue to give him a chance to develop defensively.

“Outfield is fairly new for Bryce but he’s taken to it very good,” Johnson said. “Just because he’s got a big strong arm that doesn’t mean I have to just play him in right field. Who knows what the configuration is going to be tomorrow, much less opening day or next season. I’m giving him an opportunity to go express some talent and see how far along (he is).”

Johnson said that he wouldn’t play Harper in center during spring games if he didn’t envision him playing the position in the regular season this season, but added that reporters and fans shouldn’t read too much into his team’s defensive alignment tonight.

“You’re trying to draw conclusions for 21 days from now,” Johnson said. “I certainly don’t have my 25 (opening day players) picked and I’ve talked to a lot of my coaches, anybody who wanted to talk about it. Nobody’s really locked in on a solid 25 yet, so, is it OK if I just play a guy in center field and get him three at-bats and let him relax and play the game? We’ve got a ways to go yet.”

Meanwhile, Johnson has gotten contrasting takes on how close Ankiel is returning to game action. The outfielder believes he should be able to suit up soon, while trainers are less certain. Johnson’s hoping to see Ankiel back in the lineup on Friday when the Nats take on the Yankees.

Starter Stephen Strasburg will be on a limit of somewhere between 70 and 75 pitches tonight. He won’t work any longer than five innings.

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