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Harper makes his professional debut

Harper makes his professional debut

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VIERA, Fla. -- Before he's even legally allowed to vote, Bryce Harper has been given record money and, in some circles, a rather lofty designation -- baseball's equivalent of LeBron James. But for now he's merely one of several pro baseball neophytes living in relative obscurity within the doldrums of the instructional league in this small suburban city.

It is here, among the back fields of the Nationals' Minor League complex near Space Coast Stadium, where Harper's professional career began, unceremonious as it might have been.

Since Harper didn't sign his five-year, $9.9 million deal -- a record for a position player coming out of the Draft -- until seconds before the Aug. 17 deadline, Minor League ball wasn't really an option for the Nationals' prized lefty-hitting slugger.

So, just as it was for phenom Stephen Strasburg at this time last year, the instructional league is Harper's first taste of professional baseball. And on Thursday afternoon, in front of a scattered crowd of approximately 20 parents, scouts and determined autograph seekers, baseball's next big thing played in his first professional game.

It may not have been a pennant race at Nationals Park, but after months of hype and hoopla, it was baseball. And it's all Harper really seems interested in.

"I'm just trying to learn something every single day," said Harper, whose Draft Mohawk has pretty much grown out and who was missing his patented streaking eye black. "That's the big thing out here -- trying to learn, trying to get better every single day."

Harper learned one thing on Thursday: His timing isn't quite where it should be. But that's to be expected.

"When you haven't seen pitching for five months, it's a little hard," Harper said after an 0-for-2 game that saw him start in right field, then sit after five innings.

"Everybody gets their Spring Training. This is mine."

Harper, sporting No. 34, struck out swinging in his two plate appearances, after being out in front, on two-strike off-speed pitches.

Because he's only 17 -- and won't turn 18 until Oct. 16 -- Harper, unlike Strasburg, needs plenty of seasoning before he's deemed ready for the big leagues. But when asked how he would tinker with Harper's ferocious lefty swing, Nationals assistant general manager Bob Boone simply said, "We won't touch it."

Boone isn't worried about Harper's move from catcher to outfielder, either.

"It's not really a transition for him," Boone said while watching Harper reel in two routine fly balls on a windy day. "I mean, I saw him play center and third. So he's played all of it. He can play any position on that field. ... Plus he's got a cannon."

The instructional league, which consists of 16 games, wraps up on Oct. 12. The Nationals haven't decided whether Harper will then play in the more-competitive Arizona Fall League, opting instead to see how he does in this controlled environment.

Wherever Harper plays, though, one thing is certain: The bull's-eye will follow.

Not to worry, says Harper.

"I've had a bull's-eye on my back ever since I was 8 years old," he said. "It's nothing different, really. I just have to come out here, work hard, hustle every day. [If I] hit a ground ball back to the pitcher, I'll sprint down the line as fast as I can, it doesn't matter. I'm going to play every game like it's my last."

Harper, listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, hit .626 with 14 homers and 55 RBIs en route to being named Baseball America's High School Player of the Year as a sophomore at Las Vegas High School, then received his GED in lieu of becoming a junior so he could play in a wood-bat conference at the College of Southern Nevada.

That year, Harper hit .442 with 29 homers and 89 RBIs before the Nats took him with the highly anticipated No. 1 pick.

"All that hype, when you're 17 years old, it can really go to your head. But it hasn't for him, and that's definitely something that you don't see every day," said teammate Sammy Solis, a left-hander taken by the Nats in the second round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.

"I think he's just taking it all in, and learning a lot and taking it in stride."

Harper is taking that same approach with his Major League time line.

"I'm just going to work hard down here. I'm going to work as hard as I can," he said when asked when he expects to be in The Show. "I'm going to let the higher powers take care of that. I'm just going to let them do it, see what they see. I like being challenged, so they can move me up as fast as they want. It really doesn't matter. But I've still got a lot of things to learn."

Also in the starting lineup for the Nationals' first instructional league game was catcher Jesus Flores, who missed the entire season due to an ailing right shoulder. Flores was behind the plate for three innings and homered to left field in his first at-bat.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Gonzo and 'The Show'. Follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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