TAMPA, Fla. - If there's been one thing evident about Bryce Harper as he's gone through his first big league camp, scuffling his way along at times, it's been how far ahead of his age the 18-year-old is. Even when he's struggled, he's impressed Nationals officials with how he carries himself, filing away information from his at-bats against journeymen pitchers.
It's difficult to find a better example of that in Harper's first week of games than his performance on Saturday. Playing against the New York Yankees - the team he grew up idolizing - Harper worked Daniel Turpen to a full count before rolling over a grounder deep in the hole at first. He ripped a slider - the pitch that's given him as much trouble as any - to right for a single in the eighth, collecting his first RBI. He started a 9-4-5 relay in the eighth inning to throw out Austin Romine at third. And after the game, he gave reporters a glimpse of the hypercompetitive approach the Nationals love.
On the biggest stage he's appeared this spring, Harper rose to the occasion.
"I think people are anticipating more to come out here and watch me (than I am to play)," Harper said. "It's just another game to me. I'm going to come out here and take every at-bat like it's my last, take every inning like it's my last. I'm going to play the same game I know how to play."
As camp has gone on, Harper has seemed more resigned to the fact he's going to start the year in the minors, and has hinted at things he needs to learn while he's there. But his approach to the game - self-assured without being cocky, hungry without being anxious - is why the Nationals believe he'll be just fine. He started slow at the College of Southern Nevada last year, too, and wound up breaking the school record for home runs by 19, hitting .443 in the process.
Gradually, he seems to be getting a handle on the way he'll be pitched in pro ball, too. But you won't hear him say that.
"I think my strike zone is pretty bad right now, actually," Harper said. "I feel like I've got a lot to learn up at the plate, strike-zone wise. I know that going down to the minor league baseball strike zone, it's going to be totally different. It's going to be like going back to college. I'm just going to go up there, try to see a pitch up, try to see a pitch away, and drive it."
There was plenty of attention on Harper's trip to Tampa on Saturday because of his not-so-subtle love for the Yankees. He's said repeatedly they were his favorite team as a kid, adding in his first press conference of the spring that he was looking forward to playing the 27-time world champions because "they've got all the studs."
When the topic surfaced on Saturday, though, Harper showed a different side.
"I don't really care to say, 'Hi,' to anybody on other teams," Harper said, when asked if he'd gotten a chance to meet any Yankees players. "We came out today trying to win a ballgame."
Later, he added, "I'm trying to beat them. That's what I am. If we're off the field, hey, I'll go say hello. You can be my best friend off the field, and I'll hate you on the baseball field. That's how I am. If I'm playing against some of the guys I played with in USA (Baseball), they're my buddies off the field. But on the field, I want to kick the crap out of you. I want to play the game hard. That's how I am. I'll take you out. If you're my best friend and I'm playing shortstop, I'm stil going to take you out. I don't care. We're going out there and trying to win every single game."
Harper is probably entering his final week in big league camp, and will get a few more at-bats before going to the team's minor league camp. But his competitiveness has made an impression this spring, perhaps none stronger than the one he left on Saturday.
"When you're on the other team, and those guys (like Harper) walk up there, they are so aggressive," manager Jim Riggleman said. "They may go through a bad day or two, but they put a little fear in you. With experience, he'll take a little off and see that he can get the same results. But in the meantime, they'll strike a little fear in you when they come up there."