Wednesday, March 30, 2011, 4:28 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper stood inside the spacious and luxurious clubhouse at Nationals Park, feeling for one day at least like they were part of the team that will take the field Thursday afternoon against the Atlanta Braves.
By the time each Nationals player is introduced to the sellout crowd and assembles along the first-base line to stand for the national anthem, though, Strasburg and Harper will be long gone. Due to fly back to Viera, Fla., on Thursday, the two most recognizable players in the Nationals organization are about to disappear for a while.
"It's going to be tough going back to Florida," Strasburg said. "That's for sure."
While Livan Hernandez throws the first pitch of the season in front of 40,000 fans, Strasburg will be in Viera playing catch with a trainer in front of no one. Such is life when you're seven months removed from Tommy John surgery.
Harper, meanwhile, will be back on the minor-league fields near Space Coast Stadium, playing in another intrasquad game in preparation for his April 7 debut with Single-A Hagerstown. Wednesday provided a mere taste of what Harper can expect once he arrives in the big leagues, whether later this year, in 2012 or 2013.
The thought of leaving this all behind for the long bus rides and poor facilities of the minors wasn't easy for Harper to accept.
"Pretty hard," the 18-year-old outfielder said. "But it's all about everybody else right now. It's all about Zim and Werth and the guys that are going to be here. ... I just want to go out there, have some fun with all the guys and hopefully get up here pretty soon."
The Nationals brought Strasburg and Harper (along with injured right-hander Chien-Ming Wang and prospects Derek Norris and Cole Kimball) up to D.C. for the day so they could participate in Wednesday's NatsFest event. It may not compare to the scene they'll miss Thursday, but it's as close as any of them are going to get to a major-league ballpark for a while.
"I love being here," Harper said. "Great city to be in, great place to play, great ballpark. I came out here yesterday and came up and walked up the steps at night and saw it all glowing and everything like that. Being able to go out there and seeing the Opening Day sign and seeing all the ballpark just glowing, there's nothing like that. I got chills. It was incredible."
Harper has made a nearly full recovery from the sprained ankle that briefly left club officials worried he might have to miss Hagerstown's opener. After sitting out one week, he was back in the lineup in Viera on Sunday and played again Tuesday with no problems, making him confident he'll debut next week in Rome, Ga.
"It's feeling strong," he said. "I'll be ready."
As for Harper's first taste of life in the low minors ... well, he apparently has plans to shake up sleepy Hagerstown.
"I don't know if they like baseball or not," he said. "Everybody's telling me it's not that great. But I'm going to make it great, make it a baseball town. We're going to win down there."
Harper's stint in Hagerstown, of course, may be brief. If he dominates as expected, the Nationals will promote him to high-Single-A Potomac, then perhaps Double-A Harrisburg later this summer. The club hasn't ruled out the possibility of a September cup of coffee in Washington, though it's unlikely.
Strasburg, likewise, could be back in the District in September if his rehab continues on schedule. Pitchers generally make a full recovery from Tommy John surgery (which Strasburg underwent Sept. 3) in 12 to 18 months.
For now, the right-hander is trying not to focus on that ultimate goal and instead on each individual milestone he still must cross over the course of the summer: throwing off a bullpen mound for the first time, facing live hitters for the first time, pitching in a minor-league game for the first time.
"I'm kind of not placing expectations on myself," he said. "I can't control how fast my body heals. Everything's pointing to me being back at the end of the year, so that's what I'm hoping for. But at the same time, I'm just going to let it heal naturally. I'm not going to try and push the envelope."
More than the physical challenges that await, Strasburg will have to battle the mental wear of a long spring and summer in Viera, with only a handful of fellow injured players around and plenty of tedium to overcome.
If he's able to pass all those tests, and if he's able to make a full recovery, Strasburg knows he'll face a far more pleasant situation next year at this time. Instead of boarding a plane back to Viera, he'll stay in Washington with his teammates and actually get to participate in his first Opening Day in the majors.
"I wish I was here," he said. "But I'm hoping to have plenty more in the long run."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at email@example.com and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.