Marcos Breton

May 23, 2013

Marcos Breton: Nationals' Harper has the look of a superstar

Sometimes a simple weekday ballgame turns into something greater, as it did Wednesday when a superlative talent almost single-handedly beat the Giants and proved not all ballplayers are created equally.

Marcos Breton

Connecting the dots on issues, people and news in the Sacramento region

SAN FRANCISCO – Sometimes a simple weekday ballgame turns into something greater, as it did Wednesday when a superlative talent almost single-handedly beat the Giants and proved not all ballplayers are created equally.

Bryce Harper, the 20-year-old phenom right fielder for the Washington Nationals, is not everything a breathless baseball press makes him out to be.

He is even better.

The Nationals' 2-1, 10-inning win over the Giants on Wednesday was like being transported back in time to a similar afternoon just down the road from here. It was 1986 at Candlestick Park, where I first saw a kid named Will Clark. Back then, the Giants first baseman owned a timeless left-handed swing out of baseball lore and seemed possessed by a 1940s baseball ethic of how a player should take the field.

People my age remember the brand-new Clark with reverence because of the excitement he generated before injuries and a lack of conditioning dulled his skills. And before steroid use in other players distorted the image of what players should be.

Harper evokes those old feelings, but his promise is even greater.

There are no questions about Harper's conditioning. He has speed that Clark never had. He plays right field with abandon, as he showed May 13 by damaging his body while running full speed into a Dodger Stadium wall in pursuit of a fly ball.

Emblematic of a ubiquitous media age where scrutiny lives forever online – pressures Clark never faced – Harper has been dogged by his collision as if he were some kind of freak.

There were online headlines like: "Bryce Harper wasn't playing hard, he was playing dumb." Or "Bryce Harper's misplay was a blooper: Not an act of heroism.

Those twisted vibes followed the Nationals into San Francisco, where a team the Giants should have faced in the National League Championship Series last season was suddenly worrying about losing its way. Harper missed three games on a frustrating 10-day trip while answering questions about his Dodger Stadium crash.

Then Tuesday night, the Giants the beat the Nationals when Harper misplayed a long fly ball by Gregor Blanco that turned into a triple and kept the game alive for a walk-off home run by Pablo Sandoval.

Harper was bashed by a teammate for not playing deep enough in the first place. And when he went back to the wall at AT&T Park on Blanco's blast, Harper seemed tentative.

Wednesday, Deadspin mocked Tuesday's misplay by saying the wall was still in Harper's head.

He stood up to 21st-century cranks with old-school candor: "Of course that crosses your mind after you jam into a wall," Harper told the Washington Post. "It doesn't really feel very good. It (stinks) that I couldn't make the play. I totally put that loss on me."

What was most impressive about Harper's performance Wednesday – beyond his muscular opposite-field home run off an otherwise excellent Madison Bumgarner – were the plays he made in the field.

In the sixth inning, Giants right fielder Hunter Pence crushed a pitch that seemed headed exactly where Harper had failed the night before. He not only didn't flinch, he made a spectacular catch on the run to preserve the 1-0 lead he had made possible. Then in the eighth, Harper made an even bigger play when he robbed Pence again with a sliding catch in right field when the Giants had the go-ahead run on second base.

Then he came around to score the winning run after smoking a double in the 10th. The kid answered critics with his talent.

Harper ran the bases as if his life depended on it. His exploits foiled the typical Giants formula of winning games when holding opponents to two runs or less. He erased a gem by Bumgarner and a terrific day of pitching and defense by a Giants team that hadn't shown much of either lately.

During the game, ESPN tweeted that Harper's 12 home runs in his team's first 50 games of the season were the most by a player 20 and under since Giants great Orlando Cepeda in 1958. Yes, Cepeda is in the Hall of Fame today.

It's way too early to lay such expectations on Harper, but the Giants noticed what everyone else did Wednesday.

"Give the kid credit, he bounced back," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said.

"It's fun to go against guys like that," Bumgarner said.

"He's a great player," said Jeremy Affeldt, the Giants reliever who got stuck with Wednesday's loss. "A guy like that can make a big difference."

He also can make a lasting impression, as the special ones always do.

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.

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