The decision to call Bryce Harper up ahead of schedule in late April was D.C. GM Mike Rizzo's, and it was described by the general manager at the time as, "... a team decision," that was being made, "... to support the major league club in really a time that we need an offensive player that can play corner outfield."
The Nats' 19-year-old, 2010 no.1 overall pick had a total of 130 games and 536 plate appearances on his resume over a season-plus in the Nats' system at that point. In 109 games and 402 PAs between Class-A Hagerstown and Double-A Harrisburg in his first pro season in 2011, the then-18-year-old Harper put up a .297/.392/.501 line with 24 doubles, 17 HRs and 26 SBs. In 21 games and 84 plate appearances at Triple-A in 2012, the second-year pro had a .243/.325/.365 line with four doubles, a triple and a home run before he was called up to make his MLB debut.
Over his first 30 games in the majors in April/May, the rookie outfielder posted a .274/.357/.504 line with six doubles, four triples, four home runs and 21 runs scored in 129 PAs. In June, Harper put up a .274/.336/.443 line with six doubles, four home runs and 15 runs scored in 25 games and 116 PAs. Harper hit four doubles, a triple, a home run and scored 17 runs while posting a .222/.306/.313 line in 25 games and 111 plate appearances in July, however, and had a .243/.292/.456 line in August in 27 games and 115 PAs in which he hit two doubles and six home runs while scoring 18 runs totals.
Harper completed his rookie campaign with a .330/.402/.651 month of September in which he hit eight doubles, three triples and seven home runs while scoring 26 runs in 29 games and 123 plate appearances. In summing up his first-year outfielder's performance for reporters before the third game of the NLDS with St. Louis, Nationals' manager Davey Johnson said, "[Harper] came up and he had a really good idea of the strike zone. He went through a time [when] he expanded it, but then he made some adjustments back to making them throw the ball over. I think of all the guys the last three weeks of the season, he was as locked in as anybody I had on the ballclub."
Harper's production in the month of September earned him a second NL Rookie of the Month award. The first postseason games of his career took place on the road in Busch Stadium, where Harper was 1 for 10 with a double and six Ks in Games 1 and 2 against the Cardinals. After collecting his first hit of the series in Game 2 of the NLDS, however, Harper was thrown out trying to tag and take third on a weak throw in from left field after a Ryan Zimmerman sac fly. Cards' left field Matt Holliday spiked a throw from left that bounced and rolled toward the infield, but was hurriedly recovered in time to get Harper at third for what ending up being a rally-killing out in a game in which the Nationals were down early and eventually lost big.
"We had a little rally going there," Davey Johnson told reporters after the loss, chalking Harper's decision up to inexperience, "He was in scoring position and he tried to get to third and just kind of killed the rally we had going. Again, that's just a little inexperience. He's overly aggressive there, he didn't tag up, he had to go back and tag up, that was right, but it was wrong to try to go to third."
The Nats' manager wasn't worried about his rookie outfielder, thought and he expected big things from Harper as the series went on. "He has just a great approach at home plate," Johnson explained when the Nats returned to the nation's capital, and even though Harper had struggled with illness and the elements, Johnson said he was battling the same issues the rest of the Nats' offense dealt with on the road in Games 1 and 2. "The shadows in St. Louis were something that my guys, and especially in that environment in the playoff situation, weren't used to. Obviously the Cardinals were more used to the shadows in their own ballpark. But, we're more comfortable here, so we won't have to deal with that. I think we're going to get better at bats all the way through the lineup."
Harper went 0 for 8 at the plate in the first two games at home in Nationals Park, leaving him 1 for 18 in the series after Game 4, but heading into the series finale, his manager continued to show faith in the outfielder that he'd wanted on the roster on Opening Day. "Well, knowing Bryce," Johnson said, "the conditions in St. Louis were pretty tough. It was hard. Pitch recognition was very tough there in the shadows. And with Bryce, when he doesn't do something spectacular, it's hard to believe, but he tries harder; and trying harder is not always better."
"He's done great," Johnson continued, "I mean, the tension of a pennant race in September, he played like a veteran. But he still expects a lot of himself and even one ballgame, if it doesn't go where he does a lot of good things, he's going to just try harder. And he's going to expand the zone. But I look for him -- I mean, he's had four games now, so he should be calmed down, he should be all right."
In Game 5, with the season on the line, Harper came out swinging, with an RBI triple in his first at bat and a home run to center the second time up that had the Nationals out to a 4-0 lead, and after Michael Morse homered two at bats later, a 6-0 lead over the Cardinals. Harper became the second-youngest player (behind only Atlanta's Andruw Jones) to homer in a playoff game, but he went 0 for 3 with 2 Ks in his final three ABs, leaving him 3 for 23 with a double, triple, a home run and eight Ks in his first postseason run.
When the game ended with a dramatic ninth-inning collapse, the 19-year-old rookie sat alone on the dugout bench for a few minutes taking it all in. When he spoke to reporters aftewards, the first-year major leaguer told reporters, including the Washington Post's James Wagner, that it wasn't the way he wanted to finish his first major league season. "'It’s not how I wanted my year to end, definitely,'" Harper said, "'I wanted to play deeper into the postseason, not ready to go home, don’t want to take off that uniform.'" The positive, as he saw it, was that he was just getting started. "'I get 20 more years of this,'" Harper said.
You hope that's not the sort of statement that comes back to haunt him if the Nationals (or any other teams Harper ends up playing for in his career) can't repeat the success Washington had during his first MLB season, but the Nats' success was in no small part due to the work their 19-year-old, preternaturally-gifted hitter did in a season full of firsts for a players who did things few teenagers in the history of the game were able to accomplish in their own rookie campaigns. Looking back and saying you saw this impressive first season by a true once-in-a-generation talent is one of many small consolations Nationals fans can take solace in after the heartbreak they suffered as a group on Friday night.