A new era begins

A new era begins
April 28, 2012, 6:31 pm
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Everyone knew the day would come when Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg would take the field together as Nationals teammates for the first of many times. Nobody knew that day would come so soon.

It took an unusual alignment of stars for Strasburg and Harper's paths to intersect tonight in the city of stars. This wasn't supposed to happen for another month or two, but a rash of injuries to the heart of the Nationals lineup forced Mike Rizzo's hand, so tonight we will see this organization's two No. 1 draft picks together at last.

Nats-Dodgers. A couple of first-place clubs going head-to-head. Strasburg on the mound. Harper in the lineup.

Welcome to a new era of Nationals baseball.

Summoned from Class AAA Syracuse after only 20 games, Harper will make his major-league debut at Dodger Stadium, batting seventh and starting in left field for a Washington club that desperately needs an injection of life into a stagnant lineup.

Last night's 3-2 loss to the Dodgers represented the fifth time in six games the Nationals have scored three or fewer runs. And with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse now on the disabled list, Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson had run out of places to find offense.

So the call was placed to Syracuse, where a stunned Harper learned from Chiefs manager Tony Beasley he would be making his big-league debut at 19.

That alone isn't as big a deal as you might think. Harper will be the 608th player in baseball history to debut before age 20. Success, though, is anything but guaranteed. Of those 607 previous big-league teenagers, only three had double-digit home run total in their first season: Tony Conigliaro (24 in 1964), Ken Griffey Jr. (16 in 1989) and Mickey Mantle (13 in 1951).

So the expectation level for Harper in his first taste of the majors should be minimal. That line of thinking should also hold true based on Harper's well-established track record: At every level he's played, he's struggled mightily at the plate for two or three weeks before taking off.

The Nationals and their fans would be wise to assume history will repeat itself now that Harper has arrived. He shouldn't be expected to be the savior of a lineup that needs saving. Anything he does produce at the plate is gravy.

Truth be told, the lion's share of the attention on tonight's game should be directed at the 23-year-old on the mound, not the 19-year-old in left field. Strasburg already survived his much-ballyhooed arrival two years ago, perhaps setting a new standard for excellence in a debut performance.

These days, the right-hander is merely one of the best young pitchers in the game. And tonight he faces one of his stiffest challenges to date: A first-place Dodgers club that boasts the best hitter on the planet right now in Matt Kemp.

Coming off back-to-back losses for only the second time this season, the Nationals would love to get back on the winning track and give themselves a shot at their seventh series victory in as many tries.

Thus, the spotlight should shine brightest tonight on Strasburg, who gets to find out if he can play the role of stopper and pitch his team back into the win column.

No matter what happens tonight, though, baseball in Washington will never be the same. Remember the embarrassment of those consecutive 59-win seasons in 2008 and 2009? Well, the payoff for that ineptitude is finally here, in the form of two No. 1 draft picks, each touted as the best prospect at his position in a generation.

That's a lot of pressure for Strasburg and Harper to have thrown at them. As we saw two years ago, Strasburg can handle the heat. And there's no reason to believe the supremely confident Harper won't also deal with this task in fine form.

Whether that manifests itself into a 3-for-4 performance or a three-strikeout night remains to be seen.

For now, all the Nationals can do is sit back and count down the hours until the next chapter in their history is written.