WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 17: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees talks with Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals during the game at Nationals Park on June 17, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Bryce Harper initially struggled, but ultimately held his own against the team he grew up cheering for in this weekend's three-game series in D.C.
Following Saturday's extra innings loss to the visiting New York Yankees, which guaranteed the Washington Nationals would lose their fifth series of the season, in a game which saw both teams practically empty their benches (Jhonatan Solano was the only player on either side who didn't play) and use a total of fourteen pitchers in fourteen innings, all anyone could talk about was four at bats between a nineteen-year-old rookie and a 40-year-old, 17-year veteran. Why was everyone so astonished that Bryce Harper would go 0 for 7 with 5 K's overall and 0 for 4 with 3 K's against Andy Pettitte? After all, entering play on Saturday, the Yankees' lefty had held left-handed hitters to a .178/.213/.267 line this season. Harper started the game with a .383/.442/.660 line against left-handers. When the game was over that was down to .346/.404/.596.
As soon as the Yankees' veteran lefty got Harper to chase a 1-1 slider out of the zone in the first at bat between the two in the second, Pettitte stuck with the pitch, getting Harper to chase a 1-2 slider for a swinging strikeout in that at bat, throwing three-straight sliders (sliders acc to Gameday or cutters as Pettitte would later identify them in his post game comments) in Harper's second trip to the plate in the third and four-straight in the fifth to get the 19-year-old slugger swinging in each of his first three AB's. Pettitte missed with the first two sliders in his fourth at bat against the left-handed-hitting Harper in the seventh, and the Nationals' 2010 no.1 overall pick got a fastball that he lined out to center leaving him 0 for 4 through seven innings of what would end up being a fourteen inning game in Nats Park.
"'He seemed extremely aggressive,'" Pettitte told reporters, including the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, after the game, "'When you see him swinging the way he was, for me, it was like: Why go anywhere else right now? I just stayed with those cutters.'"
"I thought [Harper] was probably really amped up," Davey Johnson explained, "and he came in there against Pettitte, I've never seen him chase balls out of the zone. I mean he was chasing balls. He got in that mode and tried to make something happen and that's part of the youth. Some other guys would get runners in scoring position and we're swinging at balls not anywhere close to the strike zone. It's inexperience, you know. Other guy is in a jam we don't have to help him out and we helped him out."
"This is probably [Harper's] first really tough game," Johnson continued, "Where he was chasing balls and over-anxious and that's showing some of his inexperience. But again, that's young guys trying to do too much." Harper's teammates didn't fare too much better against Pettitte, who allowed just two runs in seven innings with both of them coming on a broken bat, two-run double by Jesus Flores in the second. The Nationals as a team went 2 for 10 with RISP in Saturday's extra inning loss which saw them strand 11 baserunners in what was a 3-3 tie until Mark Teixeira broke up the deadlock in the top of the fourteenth.
After the game, Harper declined to comment on his performance, telling reporters simply, "I don't want to talk." The 19-year-old outfielder did, however, discuss the previous night's game on Sunday, telling the Washington Times' Amanda Comak, "... I don't think I've ever had a game like that in my life." Harper responded to the 0 for 7 game on Saturday night, which dropped his average from .302 to .289, by going 2 for 4 with a double on Sunday as the Nationals lost the third-straight game to New York. In the first series against the team he grew up cheering for (and even cheered on openly last Fall on Twitter drawing unnecessary anger out of some fans in the nation's capital), the first-year major leaguer finished 3 for 16 with six strikeouts.
Nats' manager Davey Johnson told reporters after Sunday's loss to New York that he wasn't surprised to see Harper bounce back and go 2 for 4 in the finale after struggling mightily on Saturday night. "I kind of expected that," the manager who lobbied for the outfielder to start the season in the majors said. "He's a pretty good hitter," Johnson deadpanned, "So nice to see him sting the ball three times or whatever, but we've got to get some other guys swinging the bat. That's our issue. It's hard to beat an American League club scoring one run."
After grounding out the first time up against the Yankees' 25-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova on Sunday, Harper hit a two-out double off the out-of-town scoreboard in right in his second at bat in the third, just missing connecting on home run number eight of 2012 and settling for his tenth double of the season and his first hit of the series since the third inning of Friday night's series opener. Between hits, Harper was 0 for 10 with 6 K's. He was stranded at second one at bat later when Ryan Zimmerman K'd swinging at an 0-2 pitch in the dirt from Nova to end the third.
After Washington dropped three-straight to New York, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson told reporters that he felt his team had learned something from the series even if they hadn't been able to beat the AL East's first-place team. "I think it was a great experience for the ballclub," the 69-year-old skipper said, "A full house, playing the Yankees, I mean that's a good way to get a quick education, and I think we did alright."
Asked for any other positives he could take away from the series, the second-year manager said, "I didn't see a whole lot of difference," between the Yankees and Nationals, "I think we match up good with anybody. And I said all along, we just have to do the things we're capable of doing, nothing more, nothing less."
Bryce Harper's 2 for 4 outing on Sunday left him with a .294/.370/.524 line on the year in his rookie season. More important than his struggles at the plate, however, was the fact that he didn't take it onto the field. Harper made a few diving catches, made a great throw home in Sunday's game to hold a runner at third in a close contest and may have finally learned an important lesson himself. The Yankees he cheered for growing up aren't his idols anymore, they're his opponents, and he and his Nationals teammates are perfectly capable of competing and holding their own against the game's best even if they couldn't beat them this weekend.
• Bonus Quote - Davey Johnson on Bryce Harper/Alex Rodriguez comparisons:
Davey Johnson: "[They're] totally different players. A-Rod is that combination, that I call a pure hitter, that hits .300 with power. Harper has that opportunity too. He's in the infant stages. Both very ballyhooed coming out of high school. A-Rod's always [been] a shortstop, I think you've got to tip your hat to Harper, he grew up a catcher, pitcher, shortstop and [whatever] else, but I think they both broke in with the same kind of ballyhoo, highly-touted and living up to it."