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Harper makes heralded debut

Harper makes heralded debut

Harper makes heralded debut
ROME, Ga. -- Everyone wanted Thursday to be just another game, not some Bryce Harper debut-induced circus. In many ways, that wish was granted.

Deep in the heart of Braves country, the 4,133 on hand at State Mutual Stadium did not generate much buzz about the debut of the No. 1 pick from the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, showing more enthusiasm when Henry the Hot Dog made his between-innings appearance.

That's not to say this Minor League Opening Day didn't generate any interest. The Nationals' front office was well represented, with assistant general managers Bob Boone and Roy Clark on hand to see how the system's top prospect fared. And while there weren't the kind of dramatics some may have hoped for, the 18-year-old right fielder acquitted himself well, going 2-for-4 with an RBI, in a 3-2 win for the Hagerstown Suns against the Rome Braves.

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"I had big butterflies going out there tonight," said Harper, who batted third in the order. "After that first pitch was thrown, I felt really good. I felt really solid at the plate. I had a good BP out there today. Our guys went out there, we played hard, that's what you should expect every game from us."

Major League Baseball was also on hand, with members of the Commissioner's Office in attendance to authenticate several pieces of memorabilia from Harper's debut. The haul included a half-dozen game-used and autographed baseballs, the first set of bases from the game, the lineup cards from both managers and Harper's nameplate -- or the Class A equivalent, a yellow strip of paper -- from above his locker. All will eventually be auctioned off.

Harper took care of a few firsts right in the top of the first inning of this South Atlantic League opener. His first hit led to his first RBI. That was followed by his first stolen base. He also picked up his first strikeout, in the sixth.

"I was really excited to get up there," said Harper, who faced Braves left-handed pitching prospect Carlos Perez in his first two trips to the plate. "When I got those two base hits, I felt really good. When I went up there for that third at-bat, I think he was throwing me two-seams. They were a couple of inches out, I shouldn't have been swinging at it. But when I see that fastball, it looks like a balloon to me. I need to be a little bit more patient, get my pitch a little bit more."

Harper worked the count full against Perez in his first official at-bat. He was out in front of a Perez offspeed offering, but managed to loop a single to center field to bring in Hagerstown's first run of the season.

In his second at-bat, Harper showed off some of his baseball acumen. With a runner on first and one out in the third inning, Harper saw that Rome third baseman Edward Salcedo was playing deep and pushed a perfect bunt in his direction for his second hit of the day. Harper had stolen second after his first-inning hit and that, combined with him busting down the line on the bunt, showed he can contribute with his legs as well as his bat.

"I think that's huge about my game," said Harper, who then got picked off as part of a successful double steal that plated the Suns' second run. "If I can lay one down, get on base, get a runner over, I think that's huge. It helped us out and that's all that matters to us.

"I saw him back, and I saw [Braves shortstop Matt] Lipka behind second base and I was like, 'OK, if they want to throw that at me, I throw this one at them.' And it worked out."

"He has all the tools, and he showed them all tonight," Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach said. "He bunted a couple of times in Spring Training. It was definitely a spot where the situation called for it. He's just a baseball player, and he showed all aspects of it tonight. He played an aggressive game, and that's what he does every day.

"I've seen a lot of guys with that, but I've never played with a kid that young. I don't think anybody has. He should be a senior in high school. He definitely has the aggressive mentality, and we just want to keep moving forward."

The only things missing from Harper's debut were a long ball -- though he put on his typical display in batting practice -- and a sense of excitement and anticipation from the crowd on hand for the opener here. It wasn't lost on Rome manager Matt Walbeck, who was in the opposing dugout in Altoona, Pa., a year ago when Stephen Strasburg made a more buzz-inducing pro debut.

"I noticed that, too," Walbeck said. "I still think it was a pretty exciting game, at least to watch him play in his debut, if you're really in the know of baseball. I think also A ball and Double-A, there's somewhat of a different dynamic. But for some reason, it just wasn't the same."

Much like he did during his stints in the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training big league camp, Harper fulfilled his biggest goals: fitting in as one of the guys and helping his team win.

"Any time we can go out there and get a win, I think that's huge," Harper said. "We got great pitching tonight, they kept us in it. We won a good ballgame.

"I really think I'm still one of those guys. We have a great team. We have a lot of good guys that are going to play hard for us. We're a family out there. We jelled pretty well. Everybody's getting along in the clubhouse. I love it. It's a blast. It's everything I ever wanted to do."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, B3. Follow @JonathanMayoB3 on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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