Nationals' Harper, Strasburg are mature beyond their years
Web linksBaseball blog: On-Base Perception
WASHINGTON -- When it was time, Bryce Harper gestured to the gathering media crowd, and the half-circle of reporters tightened around his locker like a noose. Television lights shined in his face. Microphones were shoved under his chin.
Not once during the 5-minute, 43-second interview did Harper's expression change. Not even when a teammate suddenly decided to blast a profanity-laced rap song so loudly that it made a number of his answers inaudible to those standing within three feet.
And people were worried about Harper's maturity?
As the music blared, Harper never flinched. As far as the Nationals' 19-year-old prodigy was concerned, he could have been standing in the Library of Congress. His focus was on listening to the question, formulating a response and moving on to the next one.
Bryce, are there any current Yankees that you idolized growing up?
"Um, not much," Harper replied. "There's a lot of guys that I looked up to. There's a guy in our clubhouse now that I look up to -- Ryan Zimmerman. He's unbelievable. For him to take me under his wing and really help me out every day, I think he's a guy that I want to be like in the near future."
Bryce, is there anything that you can learn from Derek Jeter as someone who's played in the fishbowl for so long?
"Jeter is the face of baseball," Harper said. "He's going to be a Hall of Famer. He's had a great career. Hopefully he can play for the next five years, too."
And so it went. For as much unfettered joy as Harper displays on the field, he also can pull in the reins when necessary, and that's something that needs to be done occasionally to stay on point in the major leagues.
Stephen Strasburg, the No. 1 pick in 2009 before Harper went first overall the following year, knows the feeling. Now back as the ace of the Nationals' rotation after making only five starts in 2011 because of Tommy John surgery, Strasburg, 23, no longer has to absorb most of the media crush by himself.
At 8-1 with a 2.45 ERA, Strasburg has 100 strikeouts in 77 innings. He's a threat to R.A. Dickey to start next month's All-Star Game for the National League. Two years ago, Dickey likened his D.C. matchup with Strasburg to a butterfly vs. an F-15 fighter jet. As different as their styles may be -- a floating knuckleball compared to a knockout 98-mph fastball -- both burn with a similar white-hot competitive fire.
"I'm not one to sit here and say that we've arrived," Strasburg said of the Nationals' fast start. "That we've accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. We're not even halfway through the season.
"A lot can change. You look at last year, some of the teams that didn't get in the playoffs. They were playing good baseball all year except up until the last month. You can't really worry about all the hype that this team is getting now."
Strasburg and Harper are the magnets for that attention, just as Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry were for the Mets of the mid-1980s. Those also were teams with plenty of other talented pieces surrounding two young superstars.
Three decades later, former Mets manager and current Nationals manager Davey Johnson has his modern-day Doc and Straw, but Strasburg and Harper appear to be immune to the distractions that doomed their Mets counterparts.
"Nowadays the spotlight is on you," Johnson said. "We have lessons on Tweeter and Facebook -- be careful what you say, the world knows what's going on. We know people are watching. But the makeup on this ballclub is such that they like it. They like scrutiny. They like being up against the best. They like the challenge that brings."
Harper, who began the season at Triple-A Syracuse, was supposed to get only a taste of the majors when he was called up April 27 to replace the injured Zimmerman. But Harper soon made it impossible to be sent back down.
Before going 0-for-7 with five strikeouts in a 5-3, 14-inning loss to the Yankees Saturday, he was batting .365 (31-for-85) with three doubles, three triples and five home runs in his last 22 games. He had a .438 on-base percentage, a .647 slugging percentage, 14 RBIs, 19 runs scored and three stolen bases in that span.
"One thing about him: I bet he never changes the way he plays," said Mets manager Terry Collins, who first watched Harper in the low minors before getting a more recent look at Nationals Park. "He's the whole package. I saw him when he was 17. He walked on the field with guys four years older than him and he was head and shoulders above all of them."
Just as the Nationals have to worry about Harper's high motor wearing down over the course of a long season, they plan to protect the surgically repaired Strasburg by restricting his innings. The Nationals have not publicly announced a number -- reportedly they plan to cap him at roughly 165 innings -- but that could be a dicey proposition, especially if they are making a playoff push in September.
Strasburg made his 13th start Thursday but left after six innings because of what the team described as a fingernail-grooming incident that cut his middle finger. He still won his fifth straight, striking out eight. When asked about the innings-limit cloud hovering over him, he shrugged.
"I understand where it comes from," Strasburg said, "but nobody's approached me on it within the organization, so I really just don't have much to say. It's something that obviously is going to be a tough decision down the road and something that I have no control over.
"You can sit here and play the what-if scenario and stuff, but I'm not trying to do that. I think it will give me a headache. I'm going to give it everything I got until Davey takes the ball out of my hands, and that's what I've focused on. That's what I've always tried to do."