PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - Bryce Harper's first spring training game with the Nationals is over, and if there's a theme to take away from it, it's this: Nobody, no matter how talented he might be, comes into the majors without a learning curve.
Harper went 0-for-2 with a pair of strikeouts, swinging at all three pitches he saw from lefty-killer Taylor Tankersley in his first at-bat. The 18-year-old got a second at-bat in the ninth inning, in which he took three pitches, but swung and missed at a sinker from Ryota Igarashi.
Nationals manager Jim Riggleman and hitting coach Rick Eckstein came away impressed with how Harper handled himself and how quickly he identified things he could correct. But there's a reason why Harper will go to the minors to start the season, which even he conceded Monday: He's going to have some work to do.
"I need to get my hacks in," Harper said. "I'm only going to be down here for a couple more games. To get at-bats on live pitching and major league pitching, it's great."
If there's an area where Harper is going to grow in professional baseball, it's in how he handles off-speed pitches. He's going to see more, and better, breaking stuff than he saw in high school and junior college, and few amateur pitchers throw a changeup anywhere near as well as professionals do.
He missed a slider from Tankersley for his first strikeout, and Igarashi, who throws his four-seamer in the low 90s, slipped an 86 mph pitch, which Harper thought was a split changeup, past him on the second strikeout. That pitch came after a pair of curveballs and a fastball away, which Harper wanted again with a 1-2 count.
"I saw the two curveballs," he said. "I wasn't looking for that. I was looking for a fastball away. He got me."
Harper didn't admit to any nerves in his debut, though he said he was fired up and said he "might have felt a little too good up there." He's a free swinger who'll take a hard cut in just about any count, and pitchers might take advantage of that approach early in his career. But the Nationals have already been impressed with how quickly Harper learns from his mistakes and takes instruction.
"He's got a very good mind," Eckstein said. "He's seeing those pitches. He came back, and we talked about them. The question I asked him was, 'When you see this guy in a week, tell me how you're going to go.' And his answer was real good. ... The things he was talking about after his at-bats were very advanced. Just from his answers alone, I was very impressed with how he was handling himself."
Asked what he'd do different, Harper couldn't pinpoint anything, other than to get a hit. But as he saw on Monday, there's not always an easy fix for failures in the majors.
"There's not really anything I can do that was different about my at-bat," Harper said. "I was looking the other way, and he just got me. I've got to tip my cap. There's nothing I can do."