Thursday, October 21, 2010, 12:35 a.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
Bryce Harper nearly capped his first appearance in the Arizona Fall League in truly grand fashion. In the end, the Washington Nationals' 18-year-old phenom had to settle for a two-run double and not a grand slam that would have turned his already-hyped Fall League debut into something really spectacular.
Facing some premier older prospects who are one step from reaching the major leagues, Harper went 1-for-4 Wednesday night in Scottsdale, Ariz., helping lead the host Scorpions to a 6-3 victory over the Mesa Solar Sox.
Batting seventh and starting in right field, this summer's top amateur draft pick was hitless in his first three at-bats, though two of the outs came on hard-hit balls. But his final at-bat of the evening, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh, proved to be his best.
Harper smacked the first pitch he saw from right-hander Brian Leach, a 24-year-old prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates' system, and sent it down the left-field line, bouncing it over the fence for a ground-rule double that brought two runs home.
That kind of opposite-field power is one of Harper's trademarks. The former College of Southern Nevada catcher made a name for himself launching opposite-field homers -- he calls them "oppo-boppos" -- with a wood bat, helping make him the top pick in this summer's draft.
Because he waited until the August 16 deadline to sign a five-year contract worth a total of 9.9 million, Harper has not yet played in a regular-season minor-league game. He did spend three weeks playing in the Florida instructional league, where he performed well enough to convince Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo he could hold his own in the Arizona Fall League.
The AFL is generally reserved for older prospects who have already played at least at the Class AA level, though every team is granted a couple of exemptions for less-experienced players. Harper was added to the Scorpions' roster this week, though as a member of the "taxi squad," he's only eligible to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays unless filling in for an injured teammate.
After celebrating his 18th birthday Saturday at his home in Las Vegas, Harper and his father, Ron, drove to Scottsdale so he could join his new team. He's slated to play through the remainder of the AFL season, which ends in late-November, before heading back home for the winter in preparation for his first spring training with the Nationals.
"I'm really, really excited to be out here," Harper told reporters Tuesday in advance of his debut. "It's a great opportunity to be out here with the best guys, get a little taste of pro ball and minor-league ball. It's a great experience."
Harper's appearance Wednesday night drew plenty of interested onlookers. Announced attendance at Scottsdale Stadium was 822, about 600 more than the previous night's game drew.