Pettitte tops Harper in experience-youth battle
WASHINGTON -- It was a long day's journey into early evening on Saturday for Bryce Harper, the Nationals' rookie center fielder who has taken Major League Baseball by storm since he made his debut on April 28.
The day began at Nationals Park with veteran Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte taking Harper to school early, striking him out swinging the first three times they faced. It ended when Harper bounced out to second on the first pitch from Yankees closer Rafael Soriano with the tying run on first and two outs in the 14th inning.
The Yankees won 5-3 -- their eighth in a row and 13th in their last 15 games. And as it turned out, Saturday was the toughest day at the plate of Harper's short big league career. He went 0-for-7, striking out five times. He faced 22 pitches and made contact with only two of them.
"This is probably his first really tough game where he was overanxious," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "That's showing some of his inexperience. He was really amped up against Pettitte. I've never seen him swing at balls out of the zone and he was chasing balls. You get in that mode where you try to make something happen and that's part of youth."
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Harper swung at pitches in the dirt and cutters that looked more like roundhouse curves coming out of Pettitte's hand from the first-base side and across the plate to the left-handed hitter. Harper hit one long drive to the warning track in center, during the seventh inning that Curtis Granderson ran down. There was also the grounder, but nary even a foul tip.
"The report that we got was that he's a pretty aggressive hitter," Pettitte said. "I'd say that fit him to a bill [Saturday]. He seemed extremely aggressive. When you see him swinging that way, for me it was, why go anyplace else right now?"
When Harper was asked to discuss his struggles in the Nats' clubhouse after the game, he politely demurred, choosing instead to shower, leave and let others do the talking for him.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he wasn't certain if the 40-year-old Pettitte had an advantage over the 19-year-old Harper. Pettitte brought in the experience of 243 regular-season wins, 19 more in the playoffs, playing on eight teams that went to the World Series and five of them in New York that won it all. This is new turf for Harper, who has been in the Majors for less than two months.
"Andy has never seen him before and Bryce has never seen Andy," Girardi said. "Is there an advantage? I don't know. Andy knows how to expand the zone and he knows how to use his slider. I'll tell you what -- the kid, even though he had his struggles at the plate, he played tremendous defense for them. He's fun to watch."
The defensive play a few of the Yankees talked about happened in the 13th inning on a line drive by Eric Chavez. At that point, Harper was clearly frustrated. When he was called out on a strike from left-handed reliever Clay Rapada in the 10th inning that seemed a tad outside, Harper bounced the tip of his bat off the plate. After Freddy Garcia got him on a swinging strike in the dirt to end the 12th, Harper dropped his bat and slammed his helmet to the ground.
Yet, Harper didn't take those frustrations out to the field. When Chavez lined a shot in front of him and toward left center, Harper tracked it down, making a diving, skidding one-handed catch to end the inning.
"That play showed me a lot about his makeup," Alex Rodriguez said. "That tells me all I need to know."
It's happened before. In the second inning here on May 20 against the Orioles, Harper dropped an easy fly ball to left-center for an error that led to two unearned Baltimore runs. Undaunted, in the bottom of the third, Harper came back and picked up those two runs with a triple into the right-field corner. The Nationals won, 9-3, and Harper had two hits, three runs scored and those two key RBIs.
After that game, he brushed off the error as a mistake, something that happens. Saturday, it wasn't so easy. It was his third big oh-for as a big leaguer. On May 19, in that same series against the Orioles, Harper went 0-for-5 with two whiffs. On May 11 at Cincinnati he was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts.
This is a learning experience, of course. Even after the outing, he was still a .289 hitter with seven homers, 19 RBIs, 30 runs scored and 36 strikeouts in 43 games. One gets the sense he will quickly rebound.
"I would rather strike out five times in the big leagues as a 19-year-old than not be in the big leagues at all," said Nats shortstop Ian Desmond, whose eighth-inning homer tied the score at 3 and sent the game spinning into extra innings. "I would definitely put my money on him to bounce back. I don't think it's going to keep him down for too long. I'm sure he'll come in [Sunday], shake it off and be back to the same, energetic kid that we've all seen."
It'll be a right-hander, Ivan Nova, on the mound for the Yanks in the series closer. No doubt, Harper will take his hacks.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.