Yanks bring out competitor in Harper

Yanks bring out competitor in Harper

Yanks bring out competitor in Harper
TAMPA, Fla. -- Lest there be any confusion about Bryce Harper's ultimate rooting interests, he clarified them on Saturday.

Harper arrived here to George M. Steinbrenner Field to play against the team he grew up rooting for, the New York Yankees. Asked if he took the opportunity to fraternize with some of the Yanks' big names -- guys like CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter -- before the game, Harper almost looked offended at the suggestion.

"I'm trying to beat 'em," Harper said. "That's what I am. If we're off the field, I'll go say hello. You can be my best friend off the field, and I'll hate you on the field. That's how I am."

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Yes, Harper might be a Yankees fan, but he's a Nationals employee. And he is clearly a man who takes his uniform seriously.

"We're a winning club," Harper said after the Nats beat the Yanks, 10-8. "We try to go out and win every single game."

They'll win plenty if Harper, the 18-year-old prodigy taken with the first overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, reaches his potential. Likely ticketed for the Minors in 2011, he's getting his first opportunity against Major League pitching this spring and trying to make the most of it.

Saturday brought another minor milestone in Harper's blossoming career: his first RBI. It came in the eighth inning, when he ripped a single to right off Romulo Sanchez to score Brian Bixler. Harper had rolled over on a pitch from Daniel Turpen for a groundout to first in his only other at-bat, in the seventh, but he smacked Sanchez's high slider.

"I just went up there trying to get a pitch I could drive," Harper said. "[Hitting coach Rick] Eckstein said to try to find something up that you could use your hands on. He threw me a slider. First pitch was a split, I think. Then he threw me a slider. I saw it up and just tried to get some runs for us."

Harper said he was more pleased with potentially preventing a run in the eighth. Austin Romine doubled to right off Sean Burnett, but Harper fielded the ball and hit cutoff man Alex Cora, who fired to third to nab Romine.

"Any time you can help out your pitcher so that he doesn't have to stay out there and throw a lot of pitches, that's huge," Harper said. "We work on that stuff a lot. We're a very fundamentally oriented team."

And Harper is a team player, which is why the Yankee mystique meant little to him between the lines.

That said, Harper did enjoy this first opportunity to play opposite the pinstripes, even if he was coming off the bench to face a guy like Turpen instead of the starter, Sabathia.

"It's awesome," Harper said. "It's really cool. Coming in here and having all the fans here, to play in front of a packed house every night, it's awesome. Seeing CC and seeing [Nick] Swisher and all those guys ... A-Rod, Robinson Cano. It's a great experience."

But then he returned to the bottom line.

"It's an even better experience winning," Harper said.

Harper, who was making his sixth appearance of this young spring season, is now 2-for-10 at the plate. He's still working to find his true comfort zone.

"I'm getting in a pretty good rhythm of seeing pitches, seeing offspeed better," Harper said. "It takes a while. It takes about 30-40 at-bats to get yourself ready. If I can get 20-30 at-bats, that will be great."

Manager Jim Riggleman is giving Harper quite a few at-bats here in the early going. He certainly didn't have any problem with Harper expressing his past rooting interest in the Yanks.

"He didn't know who he was going to get drafted by," Riggleman said. "I grew up a Brooks Robinson fan. He was an Oriole. When you're young, you have people you're a fan of. I think it's not to be misinterpreted. He's impressed with the Yankee championships and the players who built those championships and all that, but his mind-set is on Washington and trying to get to Washington and being a force in the middle of our lineup in the near future."

Harper certainly backed up that assertion.

"I'm going to play hard [no matter the opponent]," Harper said. "If you're my best friend and you're the shortstop, I'm still going to take you out. I don't care."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.