Nationals' Harper enters his 20s with rising expectations

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Photo - Jeff Roberson/AP
Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper hit .270 with 22 home runs as a 19-year-old in his first major league season in 2012.
Jeff Roberson/AP Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper hit .270 with 22 home runs as a 19-year-old in his first major league season in 2012.
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

It is not where Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper expected to be for his 20th birthday.

The rookie phenom figured he still would be playing ball on Oct. 16, helping his team push for a World Series title. Instead, he spent this week posting pictures on Twitter of his infant nephew and joking about his struggles on the golf course.

Harper shook off a shaky start to his postseason career with a triple and a home run in Game 5 of a National League Division Series against St. Louis. You know the rest of that story -- the blown 6-0 lead, the devastating loss. It was an abrupt end to a fascinating, unprecedented first season.

"I'm not sure. It's not how I wanted my year to end," Harper said Friday as he tried to put into context what had happened to him and his team this season. "I definitely wanted to play deeper into the postseason. I'm not ready to go home. I don't want to take off that uniform."

There is time now to rest and recover for 2013, when Harper won't have to worry about his role out of spring training. Cut in the middle of camp in March and sent to Triple-A Syracuse, he was summoned to the big leagues April 27 to help patch an offense that was in trouble. He never left.

Harper played in 139 games. He batted .270 with a .340 on-base percentage and an .817 OPS. Only four Nats regulars -- Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth -- were better at the plate.

Harper wasn't perfect in center field as he continued to adapt to a new position. But by the end of the season, manager Davey Johnson was satisfied Harper was taking better routes to fly balls, becoming more efficient with his steps and, for the most part, making better decisions on where and when to unleash his power throwing arm.

Harper finished with 144 hits -- 26 doubles, nine triples and 22 home runs. The only teenager to hit more homers in baseball history was Boston Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro in 1964. His OPS was better than one of his idols, Mickey Mantle (.792), at the same age.

"For a 19-year-old to do what [Harper] did was absolutely amazing," veteran teammate Mark DeRosa said.

The website Fangraphs.com has its version of the WAR stat -- Wins Above Replacement -- that measures a player's overall contribution at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Harper was at 4.9 -- tied for 24th in all of baseball with the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins and the Tigers' Prince Fielder. Desmond (5.4) was the only Washington player ranked higher.

Harper fought through a two-month slump and finished the season strong. He came through in the biggest game of the season. It all leaves the Nats wondering what their now 20-year-old center fielder has in store for 2013.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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Brian McNally

Staff writer - sports
The Washington Examiner