For all the attention and speculation surrounding baseball's most hyped prospect, Bryce Harper admitted Thursday that even he still feels a little nervous in the big moments.
"It's always fun, to get that nervous feeling -- the butterflies and whatnot," Harper said after his Triple-A debut for Syracuse. "But after the first pitch, you can throw that out the door."
Harper busted through the door in his first at-bat, hitting a double to right off Rochester starter P.J. Walters. He singled and stole second in the fourth but wasn't perfect, making the final out of the Chiefs' four-run seventh. He finished 2-4 with a steal as the Syracuse Chiefs fell to the visiting Red Wings, 7-4.
Harper, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 Draft, was one of Spring Training's biggest storylines as fans and writers speculated for months about whether the 19-year-old was ready to start the season in the Majors. Although the Nationals hinted Harper would have that opportunity, he ended up being reassigned to Triple-A two weeks ago, setting the stage for Thursday's season opener at Alliance Bank Stadium, the first game of the Minor League season.
"I just want to stay patient and suave, not get too big," said Harper. "Just go out there, see some pitches, hit the ball the other way, react to the fastball -- it worked pretty well today."
Harper's two hits were the only ones the Chiefs had through six innings. Wearing a black hood under his helmet in the brisk 39-degree weather, the 19-year-old led off the second inning with a double to right for his first Triple-A hit. He advanced to third on Mark Teahen's fly ball, but Jhonatan Solano struck out to end the inning.
After singling in his next at-bat, the Las Vegas native struck out swinging with one out in the sixth against Tyler Robertson, ending the Chiefs' four-run rally.
"I thought he did a nice job today -- I'm sure he's nervous like everyone else," said Chiefs manager Tony Beasley. " It was his first experience. I think they were trying to pound him in, and he did a nice job staying in and competing. I'm happy with how he did."
Harper admitted his first obstacle on Thursday was the weather, which was a bit colder than what he'd been used to in Viera, Fla.
"I had the ski mask on and everything. We tried to keep as warm as we could -- that's all you can do," he said. "You just try to jump around a little bit. I don't sit still often, so you just keep going and stay as warm as you can."
Harper, who brushed off the reality that he'd be a freshman in college had he not gone pro, also acknowledged his teammates, saying he's already learned a lot from the veterans on the Chiefs' roster.
"I don't think about that," he said of his age. "I just try to come out every single day and play. It's a blessing to play and I'm really excited to be here in Syracuse and learn from everyone here -- Jason Michaels and Corey Brown, the guys who have been there."
Harper said the reality of not making the Nats' Opening Day roster was an opportunity for him to re-evaluate inconsistencies in his swing. He repeatedly credited Chiefs batting coach Troy Gingrich for help over the last two weeks.
"I was a little out of whack in Spring Training -- my swing and hands and legs," he said. "I started working in the cage and got going. The best thing about me getting sent down was getting on that grind again and working in the cage and getting that routine back."
Harper admitted he pressed a bit during Spring Training, where he went 8-for-28 (.286) with no RBIs and 11 strikeouts.
"I think when I was up there, I worked as hard as I could everyday, but I was trying to do too much, getting a hit every day," he said. "I was doing way too much. Getting sent down made me calm down, stay within myself, stay within my game."
Harper's comments seem to reinforce what many have said for months: the mighty prospect could use further seasoning in the Minors before taking the D.C. spotlight.
He enters 2012 ranked as the No. 2 prospect in baseball by MLB.com following his first full season in the Minors in which he batted .297 with 17 homers, 58 RBIs and 26 stolen bases between Class A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg. He saw further time last year in the Arizona Fall League.
How long Harper remains in the Minors is, of course, a topic of more speculation. Will the Nationals bring him up by the All-Star break? As a September call-up? By June? Next week?
For now, Harper said he's enjoying the opportunity to show his skills and grow in the International League.
"It's a blessing being out there every day," he said. "I love being out there, out there with the guys. I play for today, you're not trying to see past two weeks or tomorrow, you just take it one day at a time, work hard every single day -- that's what our team is gonna do. We feel good about it."