Today marks Harper’s first true test

VIERA, Fla. - How many blog entries can one reporter write about one specific player in one spring training?

Get ready to find out.

I’ve been here two days and somehow I already feel like I’ve typed Bryce Harper’s name a thousand times.

It’s certainly no secret that Harper is the story of this year’s Nationals spring training. I wrote about the 19-year-old phenom following his 0-for-2 effort (which included a four-pitch walk) in yesterday’s exhibition opener, I’m writing about him this morning, hours before Harper is set to make his first career Grapefruit League start and there will be plenty more entries on the Nats’ top prospect before we all leave Viera in early April.

Manager Davey Johnson has made it clear he wants Harper to crack the Nationals’ 25-man roster out of camp, but general manager Mike Rizzo isn’t convinced that’s the right move. For Harper to head north with the big league club in early April, he’ll need to prove he’s worthy of a spot, and in all reality, that process begins this afternoon.

Bryce_Harper-sidebar-looking-up.jpgYesterday’s game against the Hoyas was all fine and dandy, but regardless of whether Harper went hitless or went yard versus Georgetown, the true evaluation of whether the right fielder is MLB-ready was going to start when the Nats took on the Astros today. Even though Harper is young enough to be a college freshman, no one was going to read too much into how he performed Friday afternoon while facing college pitchers far below his own skill level.

Today, Harper will square off against major league pitching, and his defense will be put to the test against players who can run the bases with the best of them. Harper will step into the box against Livan Hernandez, a pitcher who has almost as many years of major league experience (16) as Harper has years on this earth, and a guy who has made countless established hitters look foolish in that time.

Livo isn’t Tim Lincecum, but this will be a nice test.

To his credit, Harper already had formulated a gameplan of sorts against Hernandez by the time yesterday’s exhibition against Georgetown had ended.

“Just trying to get something up and hopefully get something out and over the plate where I can drive it into the left-center field gap,” Harper said. “I think that’s the biggest thing - I don’t want to try to do too much and get too big and try to hit a ball to right field, because he’s got that offspeed stuff and really knows how to pitch. Just trying to drive something to the left side and work with that.”

The competition level might be a couple dozen levels higher today than it was against the Hoyas, but Harper says he won’t let the guys standing in the other dugout affect him at all. He’ll enter this game, he says, in the same mental state he was in yesterday at this time.

“I was really excited to get out on the field and get in the swing of things (on Friday), and I’m going to be excited (Saturday) and the next day,” Harper said. “Every game I play, I get really excited. Running out to center field, I got chills really bad. I think that’s how things happen to me.”

If Harper truly feels that way, good for him. It’s important for players to be able to control their emotions and not get too high for big games or low for what might be considered routine ones.

But for the rest of us, this is when the Bryce Harper-fun starts. Now the youngster will start facing the power arms (although not when Hernandez is on the mound), the breaking balls with heavy bite and the catchers who know how to set up young hitters eager to earn an opening day roster spot.

Harper’s quest for that roster spot begins today.

Dan Kolko was named’s Nationals beat writer after spending the last four years covering the Baltimore Ravens for MASN and also serving as the Web site’s deputy managing editor. A University of Delaware graduate originally from Silver Spring, Md., Dan grew up a die-hard baseball fan and is thrilled for the opportunity to cover the Nationals. Before joining MASN, Dan worked in production at Comcast SportsNet in Bethesda, Md., and also interned at the nationally syndicated “George Michael Sports Machine” in Washington, D.C.

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