KISSIMMEE, Fla. - Bryce Harper played just 2 1/2 innings against the Astros on Thursday night, seeing no more action than he has in most of his games with the Nationals this spring. And yet, the 18-year-old already has a knack for inserting himself in the story.
In those 2 1/2 innings on Thursday night, he managed to squeeze in enough action for a complete survey course of what makes up his game right now: prodigious talent, boundless tenacity and just enough inexperience to underscore the point that last year's No. 1 overall pick needs some time in the minors to learn how to properly apply all those gifts.
Harper made a back-to-the-infield catch near the warning track to end the seventh inning, relying on cues from veteran outfielder Rick Ankiel to make up for his relative newness to right field. He caught the ball over his shoulder, just short of the warning track, and saved a run. He blooped a base hit to right in the top of the eighth inning, tore out of the box looking to stretch it - "My goal is to think three (bases) on everything," he said - and slid into second just ahead of J.B. Shuck's throw.
But with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Harper uncorked a wild throw on Brian Dopriak's double, missing cutoff men who would have had a chance to extend the game. He said he wasn't trying to throw home ("I don't have that good of an arm," he joked), but he fired to the right of his target. As the ball sailed up the third base line, away from catcher Jhonatan Solano, Jimmy Parades scored from third after he'd initially been held there, ending the game on a walk-off E9.
"He missed the guys, and we didn't have anybody there to pick it up, because the runner had stopped," manager Jim Riggleman said. "If we pick it up without letting it roll all the way in, we at least face another hitter and see what happens. He missed the guy there. But he made a nice play, turned a single into a double, did some good things."
Harper, for the most part, has played a solid right field despite only moving to the position full-time in instructional league ball last September. He's now hitting .375 in camp, and has impressed teammates with how he's taken instruction and competed.
The defensive part of his game, though, is probably the most unrefined; the Nationals moved him from catcher to the outfield to shuttle him through the minors more quickly, but he still needs to learn the finer points of playing there.
"Having the veterans help, I think that's huge," Harper said. "Having Stairsy (Matt Stairs) out there, Ankiel out there and (Jerry) Hairston, they've helped me out a lot, teaching me how to play balls. I'm just trying to play out there, be smart out there and see what (I) need to do out there to make us win."
The Nationals feel Harper has the tools to be an above-average outfielder, and Riggleman said as much again on Thursday night. He'll need to learn the position, though, and refine his instincts in the field.
His game-ending play, though, was the only thing that blotted out any of Harper's radiance on Thursday. Until that point, he was nothing but ability and competitiveness. The rest will come, in time.