Harper’s close plays showed unbridled potential in home debut

Nationals fans welcomed their young phenom Bryce Harper to Nationals Park for his home debut Tuesday in the 5-1 setback to the Arizona Diamondbacks. When announced for his first at-bat, Harper got a large roar from the partisan 22,675 in attendance.

He struck out in his first battle with D-backs starter Trevor Cahill, but still got another rousing applause from the hometown fans as he walked back to the dugout.

“I went into my first at-bat a little excited, chasing some pitches I shouldn’t have,” Harper said of his first official at-bat ever at Nationals Park. “I calmed down my next two AB’s and had some good AB’s.”

Harper ended up going 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two groundouts. Manager Davey Johnson said Arizona stuck to its game plan against the 19-year old.

“They are no dummies,” Johnson said. “They have a little bit of shift on him. They are playing him a little to pull and they are throwing him off speed stuff. I thought he swung the bat and hit the ball hard that time up the middle. The guy was almost playing straight up the middle. He played a good ball game.”

Harper said Cahill was unique, but he still knew what to expect in only his third major league game.

“Everybody is going to throw me different,” Harper said. “Everybody is going to try to throw the off speed and work hard in. I have to have a different plan every time I go up there. I was trying to see the pitch up a little bit and drive it.”

Harper’s best chance for a base hit Tuesday was his battle in the bottom of the fifth versus Cahill. Working to a full count, Harper got a hold of Cahill’s offering and shot it up the middle through the starter’s legs. But shortstop John McDonald was playing him right up the middle and threw Harper out at first.

“I was pretty upset,” Harper said. “I hit the ball through his legs and I was reading base hit. He was playing me up the gut and got me. I was trying to get that inning going, leading something off. I got pitch I could handle. There is nothing I can do about it.”

Then there was Harper’s throw from left field on a Justin Upton sacrifice fly in the seventh. From deep left field, Harper caught the ball and fired a bullet to catcher Wilson Ramos, who placed the tag on McDonald.

Home plate umpire Jeff Nelson called McDonald safe, but replays appeared to show Harper’s throw had beaten the runner.

“I thought I had a shot, reared back and gave it my all,” Harper said of the play. “That is what I try to do, making plays like that, throwing guys out.”

It was that kind of night for Harper and the Nationals, a case of ‘almosts’ and ‘what-ifs’. But the potential is certainly there. It might take a few games to see it come through, but he definitely has the stuff.

First baseman Adam LaRoche said eventually all the hoopla will die down and Harper will blend into this team.

“He is a guy that knows he belongs here,” LaRoche said. “I don’t think all of this is going to faze him when the game starts. This will wear off. Whether it is this home stand or whenever, he (will become) just another part of the group.”

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