April 29, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- Bryce Harper was born two days after Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw home and advanced the Braves to the 1992 World Series. On Saturday night, the boy who came into the world in a Las Vegas hospital that week made it to where everyone knew he would end up since he was, oh, 14.

The big league debut of Harper, the Nationals' first overall pick in 2010 and for now their starting left fielder, did not have the buzz of expectation as much as the awe of the preordained coming to pass.

Just don't tell Harper.

"I was sitting in the dugout right before the game thinking to myself, 'Wow, I'm in the big leagues.'"

"I think he did great tonight," said fellow phenom Stephen Strasburg, sullen after a hard-luck no decision in the Nationals' 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in 10 innings. "It's not easy to come out here and have to back up all the expectations."

Under what Vin Scully called a "magnificent blue sky," Harper jogged out for the bottom of the first having eschewed the full-face, NFL-style eye black he often wore in the minors, but still rocking a grown-out Mohawk -- evidence of the child in man-child.

How did Chavez Ravine at twilight compare to the rainy doubleheader he played Thursday in Rochester? "Ah, man, this is beautiful," he said after the game. "This is unbelievable coming out here. ... It's hard playing in Syracuse [home of the Nationals' AA affiliate] in 25-degree weather."

Saturday offered no clues as to which of the labels tossed at Harper since he became a legend in high school will stick: entitled brat, or humble old-schooler. Here was Harper slamming his helmet into a cubby and spiking a water cup after a fifth-inning fly out. Here he was a minute later walking Rick Ankiel's glove and cap out to him at the end of the inning, looking afraid to approach the cleanup hitter who has seen everything baseball has to offer, including his own glossy debut -- as a pitcher -- when Harper was six.

The highlights will show us (and show us) the liner Harper ripped to the wall in center in the seventh, but they will not grant us access to the hiss it emitted, audible from behind the backstop, or the "passion and the fire" he says he felt rounding first at full tilt, flicking his helmet off with his hand, looking like he wanted third.

"I'm always thinking triple when I hit one like that. That's what our organization preaches," said Harper, who also had a ninth-inning sacrifice fly that briefly put the Nationals ahead 2-1.

At 19, he's the youngest active player in the major leagues -- by more than a year -- and as he neared second the teenager in him, remembering that there were two outs and this wasn't the International League, hit the brakes like the jet that had brought him to LAX. It's that battle between man and boy that stood out most on Saturday night.

"Nothing is preordained," said Scott Boras, agent to both Harper and Strasburg. "There is nothing mundane about times like this, no matter what others predicted for him. When things go the way they did tonight, it lets you get past the story of how his big league career began and allows him to just be a baseball player again."

Harper's afternoon batting practice session had his teammates leaning on their bat knobs and chuckling as Harper sprayed moonshots to outfield seats at every point on the compass. But the greatest awe came in the bottom of the seventh, when Harper, seeing Jerry Hairston round third on a base hit to left, unleashed a screamer from his right arm that rivaled the one that leapt off his bat in the top of the inning.

"Before that situation happened I was standing out there thinking that if he hits a base hit to me I just gotta keep the ball down and not let it go and put it five rows into the seats," Harper said. "That would be bad."

His throw could not have been stronger or more accurate, but Hairston, who has seen nearly as much as Ankiel, slapped it out of catcher Wilson Ramos's mitt and slapped the plate to tie the game. That run would prove valuable.

A calm, showered Harper fielded questions in the dugout a half-hour after Matt Kemp's 10th-inning home run won the game for L.A. It obviously wasn't Harper's first media crush.

How was big league pitching? "It's only one game," he said respectfully. "Maybe I can answer that question in four or five days."

Harper on watching Kemp's homer float over the wall: "That sucked, y'know what I'm saying?"

A media relations man intervened a beat later, and away walked the teenager. To the stands to hug his agent Boras, his father, Ron, and his mother, Sheri, in that order, his rat tail trickling down his neck, feet squeaking in his sandals, a boy admittedly still growing.

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