SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — All it took was one at-bat for Bryce Harper to feel at home in his new home.
Harper, the top pick by the Washington Nationals in the 2010 draft, lined a double down the right-field line in his first at-bat for the Syracuse Chiefs, finished 2-for-4 and stole a base in his Triple A debut on a bone-chilling Thursday afternoon.
“You always get that nervous feeling, butterflies and whatnot,” said Harper, who had the Chiefs’ only two hits through the first six innings of a 7-4 loss to the Rochester Red Wings. “But after that first pitch is thrown, all of that goes out the door.
“We were just trying to get a win today.”
In his first at-bat, Harper fell behind 0-2 against right-hander P.J. Walters. After fouling off two pitches, Harper laced a double on a 2-2 offering, easily beating the throw to second. He advanced to third on a long fly out to right center but was left stranded when catcher Jhonatan Solano struck out.
In the bottom of the fourth, Harper lined the first pitch to right field for a single, stole second with a head-first slide on a close play, but was stranded again.
The lefty-swinging Harper came up with a runner on first and one out in the sixth of a 1-0 game, prompting the Red Wings to lift right-hander Jeff Manship in favor of left-hander Tyler Robertson. Harper bunted and missed the first offering, then swung and missed at a changeup to fall behind 0-2 in the count. He fouled off the next two pitches and struck out swinging on an off-speed delivery.
He grounded out hard to second in his final at-bat.
Still, it was a nice start after a tough spring for the 19-year-old power hitter.
“He did a nice job,” Chiefs manager Tony Beasley said. “I’m sure he was nervous like everyone else. He did a nice job of staying in there and competing.”
Harper has some familiar faces in the dugout to make the adjustment to the top rung of the minors easier. Perhaps the most important is his manager. Beasley, his boss at Double A Harrisburg last summer, made the jump with him.
“There’s a comfort zone there,” Beasley said. “We built a relationship. We’re able to communicate to one another and be frank with each other. I think that’s the best way to deal with players — treat them like men, and be honest and open. He knows what I expect out of him. I think I know what he’s going to give.”
Harper is making the switch to center field after playing the other two outfield positions on his way up. Although he looked a little shaky on a triple that sailed over his head in a swirling wind on Thursday, he expects the transition to be easy because he played some center in high school when he wasn’t catching.
The message so far from Beasley has been a simple one.
“I told him not to think about the major league level, to focus on dominating the level of Triple A,” Beasley said. “That’s where I want his mind to be. If I can keep him not thinking about D.C., then he’ll play well here.”
Harper signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract with the Nationals, a record for a non-pitcher signed out of the draft who had not become a free agent.
“I’m just going to push him, but at the same time keep my arms around him,” Beasley said. “He’s 19. As grown a man as he may look on the outside, he’s still a young kid on the inside, and I have to be mindful of that and protect him as much as I can, teach him and nurture him at the same time. We’ll see how he adjusts to this level of baseball.”
So far, Harper’s play has been pretty good as a pro. Last year, he played in 109 minor league games before a hamstring injury in August ended his season. He finished with a .297 average, 17 homers and 58 RBIs in 387 at-bats.
“He’s got a great attitude, loves to work hard. I’ve just seen him mature,” said Chiefs infielder Tyler Moore, who played with Harper in Harrisburg last season. “He’s a great person, plays the game hard, a great teammate.”
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound Harper will have to convince the Nationals he’s ready for major league pitching. In spring training, he missed time with a calf injury and struck out 11 times in 28 at-bats.
“I was a little out of whack in big league spring training with my swing, my hands,” Harper said. “I think the best thing was me getting sent down to Triple A and really getting on that grind every day of playing, get my routine back. I was trying to do too much.”
Harper is the second No. 1 pick of the Nationals to play in Syracuse, following hard-throwing right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who created a big-time buzz in his brief stay here.
A franchise-record crowd of 13,777 turned out for Strasburg’s debut in Syracuse nearly two years ago, a month before the Nationals inked Harper. In two of his International League starts at home for the Chiefs, the Nationals’ top minor-league affiliate, Strasburg attracted the biggest baseball crowds in the history of this city — including 13,766 for his debut.
On this day, an announced crowd of 6,178 souls braved the raw, early spring day, and few were left when it ended.