MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

There's much to like about 'hitterish' Harper

Castrovince: There's much to like about Harper

JUPITER, Fla. -- The reporters who gathered around Bryce Harper's locker in the visiting clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium last week wanted to ask the nascent Nationals natural about his one-pitch, pinch-hit appearance in the seventh inning against the Marlins. The one in which he pelted a first-pitch changeup into right field for an RBI single.

It had been, after all, one of several moments in big league camp in which Harper's advanced talent belied his actual inexperience.

Harper said he pounced on the pitch because he's always going to be aggressive on anything up in the zone. And then he said something that showed that he is not only redefining what an 18-year-old kid can accomplish, but also scripting his own bizarre baseball lexicon.

"I want to hit right now," he said. "I'm feeling hitterish."

Asked to define "hitterish," Harper said, "You wake up every morning and you're feeling hitterish, and you're going to get a hit that day. ... You know, you've got to wake and rake."

Now that he's been optioned out of Major League camp, as expected, Harper will have to wake and rake for Class A Hagerstown at season's outset. But if first impressions count for anything, his stay in Maryland won't last long.

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Neither, of course, will his stay in the Minors.

Scouts I've spoken with believe Harper's bat could probably play at the big league level right now. The question most often raised is how well he'll handle the adjustment to the outfield after spending the bulk of his high school and junior college days behind the plate.

Harper, though, doesn't inspire much doubt in any facet of the game. His is that rare talent that seemingly lives up to the hype, which is an increasingly difficult thing to do in this culture we've crafted. The more at-bats he was given by manager Jim Riggleman in Grapefruit League games, the more his maturity as a hitter became evident. After striking out twice on seven pitches in his debut against the Mets two weeks ago, he went 7-for-16 with three doubles, five RBIs and one strikeout the rest of the way.

"I think Bryce has been taught the strike zone from a very young age," said Riggleman, "because he knows the strike zone."

And he knows how to handle himself under the glare that comes with his position as a No. 1 overall Draft pick who was handed $9.9 million before his first professional at-bat.

The glare comes, first and foremost, from opposing pitchers, who are always going to key in on the guy who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16.

That, too, was evident in camp.

"Sometimes you're the guy who they're not going to make mistakes on," Riggleman said. "If you're a veteran [pitcher] out there and a guy like Bryce Harper steps up there, you might try to make sure he doesn't get you, so you're going to bear down a little bit more. I could see how that would happen."

Harper understands that, too. But he also understands that even the best pitchers are going to offer him something to hit at some point in an at-bat. Because the truth is, once he finds his comfort zone, there is very little Bryce Harper can't handle.

"I'm going to take every game -- every inning -- like it's my last," he said. "Pudge's [Ivan Rodriguez's] first words to me were, 'Play the game like you know how to play. It's just a different level, different team and different place.'"

If anything, Harper is dreading heading to the low Minors because of the inconsistencies of the strike zones and the opposing pitchers he'll be dealing with on a regular basis. He's seemingly above all that.

What he'll also be dealing with on a consistent basis, no matter where he plays, is attention. And that's another area of glare that Harper seems to have no trouble handling.

With contract data, magazine covers and Twitter followers (he has begun tweeting @BHarp34) all taken into consideration, the truest indication that Harper has hit the big time rests in the media policy the Nationals initiated for him this spring. Reporters are strictly forbidden from talking to Harper before games, lest they throw him off his mental and physical preparation to perform.

But when Harper is made available, he demonstrates an understanding not just of the on-field expectations generated by his abilities, but also the off-field responsibilities that come with being, perhaps, the game's most highly touted young face. Harper is nothing if not cool, confident and comfortable in his surroundings.

He also generates a few colorful catch phrases. When the left-handed-hitting Harper signed last summer, he told reporters that his best power is to left field.

"I love hitting that oppo boppo," he said, drawing a laugh.

Early in camp this year, he said Spring Training serves a purpose of shedding winter's rust.

"That's what it's for," he said. "Get all the rinky dinks out."

Now we can add "hitterish" to the ever-expanding Harper dictionary, which is sure to grow in the coming years.

But no quote said more about Harper the player than the one he gave us after playing the Yankees, the team he grew up rooting for (he wears No. 34 because three plus four is seven, Mickey Mantle's number). Asked if he had taken the time to exchange pleasantries with the Yanks' big names before the game at George M. Steinbrenner Field, Harper said he was less interested in being cordial with those guys and more interested in his mission to beat them on the baseball field, even in a spring game.

"I'm trying to beat 'em," Harper said. "That's what I am. If we're off the field, I'll go say hello. You can be my best friend off the field, and I'll hate you on the field. That's how I am."

We're still just getting to know Bryce Harper. We'll learn a lot more when he reaches the bigs, perhaps in September, if not sooner. But as his first spring camp demonstrated, there's a lot to like about this "hitterish" kid, even with all the hype he hauls.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.