Rookie getting chance to fill big outfield hole
Lake Buena Vista, Fla. -- Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper spent the better part of Tuesday night pleading with his manager to let him back into the lineup after seven games out with a left calf injury.
Davey Johnson finally told his young phenom to go home, and he eventually "tucked his tail and went," according to Johnson. But Harper finally got his way Wednesday when he returned to action against the Atlanta Braves in a road game at Champion Stadium. And there was a little surprise attached -- Harper started the game in center field.
Don't read too much into that. Harper is still a long shot to make the team for reasons both on-field and financial. He has admitted as much. But it speaks to the Nats' hole in center field that Johnson would choose to use Harper there at all. He spent the majority of his first pro season playing a corner outfield spot in the minor leagues with only the occasional foray into center.
"He runs good. He's 19," Johnson said when asked why he pushed Harper to a relatively unfamiliar position. "He's probably more comfortable pitching, at catcher or shortstop -- positions he's played. But he's a gifted athlete, and the report I got from [third-base coach Bo Porter] meant that with the other guys dropping down, I'd give him more time in center.
Harper's reaction? An enthusiastic fist pump.
It doesn't hurt that veteran center fielder Rick Ankiel is still feeling the effects of a hamstring injury. The team hopes he can play by Friday, but that's no guarantee. Roger Bernadina can play center, but the club likes him better defensively at the corners. Plus, Bernadina had a tooth pulled this week and was feeling light-headed before Wednesday's game. He was a late scratch. Jayson Werth didn't make the road trip, either. Mike Cameron, expected to challenge for a bench spot in center, retired before spring training even began. There's an opportunity here.
Johnson said he could envision Harper getting repetitions in center during the regular season. But he emphasized that it still goes back to the needs of his ballclub, not the needs of Harper himself. And right now he needs to look at other options in center. Johnson said Harper would have played center earlier except his calf injury prevented it. It's just an experiment -- but one that could pay dividends later in the summer if injuries strike.
"I'd say [Harper] played 80 percent of his games in right [in 2011] and the other 20 percent in left and center," Johnson said. "He probably grades out best in right field. And it's probably the conservative thing for anybody scouting him to say, 'Right field No. 1, left field No. 2 and center No. 3.' ... But I think it's an unfair evaluation of whether a guy can play that position and get comfortable."