History in the Making, Or Just Another Ballgame?
Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg were taken in the amateur draft twelve months apart. Each was a Boras client deemed difficult to sign and likely to command a record signing bonus. Each was acclaimed as a unique talent well worth whatever it took. The fact that they came in succeeding years was deemed extremely rare. That the Washington Nationals had the rights to them both gave life to a franchise that had been on life support for almost two decades.
On Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, the two players were on the same major league field for the first time, wearing the road jerseys of the Washington Nationals. Strasburg took the mound against the Dodgers and Harper started in left field for his very first game in the majors. Was it a historic moment?
Only time will determine how historic or mundane the game in Los Angeles was, but there were glimmers of what to expect. Stephen Strasburg continued to dazzle in his tenth start since returning from elbow surgery last September. He struck out nine Dodgers in seven innings including Matt Kemp twice. He allowed only a single run, lowering his ERA to 1.13.
Strasburg’s statistics may not remain at such historic levels, but he has been masterful over the ten starts and there was no hype in the description of his prodigious talent.
When the Dodgers scored their only run against Strasburg, the first real convergence of the two super-stars occurred. Jerry Hairston was on second with one out after being hit by Strasburg to start the seventh inning. A.J. Ellis singled into left field where Bryce Harper fielded the ball cleanly and threw a strike to Washington catcher Wilson Ramos that should have caught Jerry Hairston easily.
Hairston knocked the ball from the catcher’s glove and scored the first run of the evening. The Nationals went on to lose the game in heartbreaking fashion, but the historic moment may have been that first real look at Harper’s arm, which is the least well known of his plus-plus tools
Tony Kornheiser did not see the game but was on ESPN where he commented nonetheless about the throw saying that Rick Ankiel’s throw more than a week earlier–from deep center field that Ramos caught chest high on the fly–could not possibly have been one-upped by Harper. But when Kornheiser was shown the video, he wasn’t so certain.
Harper has been hitting only in the .240 range at Triple-A Syracuse before his recall. But the Nationals collection of left fielders filling in for the injured Michael Morse, were hitting considerably less than that and General Manager Mike Rizzo called up Harper saying the young phenom could hardly do worse.
Keith Law asserted that the Nationals are putting Harper at risk with the early promotion. With so few indications that he is ready, what are the long-term affects to his confidence if he fails? Given the bristling nature of Harper’s confidence, his swagger that seems to simmer somewhere just below full boil, it is difficult to imagine what it might take to dent the young man’s belief in himself.
Harper went 1-for-3 in each of the two games he has started. His long double to dead center on Saturday night was a clean hit that demonstrated his power, but his showing over the two games does not compare to Strasburg’s debut that was far more dramatic.
In his first game, Strasburg struck out fourteen Pittsburgh Pirates over seven innings. He hit 100 mph on the radar gun numerous times to the delight of fans. He struck out the side in his final inning of work with a packed stadium on its feet. That excitement plummeted when Strasburg needed elbow surgery before the end of his first season, but now he seems healed and to have learned from his first taste of hardship.
Strasburg’s fastball now sits at 96-97 and he has said that he is learning to pitch more and depend on his overwhelming fastball much less. It may not be the strain of an additional 3-4 mph that overworked his arm in 2010, but it seems a wiser Strasburg that is taking the mound in 2012.
Bryce Harper’s first two games have not provided the high tension excitement of Strasburg’s first few games. But it seems likely that his career will have similar highs and lows over the next few seasons. No one believes there is a structural flaw in Harper that will undermine his ability to play the game.
The question with Harper is not whether he will be a high impact offensive player, but when. Just how long will it take him to adjust to big league pitching?
Nationals manager, Davey Johnson said that Harper was ready for the majors prior to the start of Spring Training. But Harper suffered a minor injury in the spring and with a shortened window to prepare for the majors, Washington GM Mike Rizzo sent him to the minor league camp.
But now he has joined the team and the era of Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper has begun in Washington, DC. Either would be a significant bonus for a team, but for Washington to have both on the same field at the same time is truly something special.
The supporting cast has a few flaws currently, but not that many. The Nationals have the best starting rotation in the majors according to the early numbers and Stephen Strasburg is no small part of that. When Drew Storen, Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman are all healthy, the real show will begin for the Washington Nationals. Catch it in a city near you. They do not disappoint.