Harper ready for his close-up

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper swings and misses in a game against the Diamondbacks at Nationals...

Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper swings and misses in a game against the Diamondbacks at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., May 1, 2012. (LARRY DOWNING/Reuters)

MIKE RUTSEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:54 PM ET

TORONTO - He hasn’t walked on water yet or flown into a stadium wearing tights and a cape.

Bryce Harper’s landing in the major leagues this week, however, was like a giant meteor crashing into Earth.

Think the reception that Brett Lawrie received in the local rags last year and amplify that by about 100 and that has been the reception for Harper’s arrival with the Washington Nationals.

Harper has been touted as a sure thing, a future great with star power since he’s been about 5 years old. Nothing was going to shake the media from that theme the past week.

Four games into his major league career and manager Davey Johnson had moved him into the No. 3 spot in the lineup. So much for easing a player into a role.

The media, meanwhile, is going gaga.

Earlier this week came this from the Washington Post: “After two major league games, this is what we know about Bryce Harper: He can smash line drives off fences, throw laser beams from the outfield, drive in clutch runs, crash into walls to steal doubles, face the press and boos without nerves and, if it is a day game, neatly smear about a quart of eye black on each cheek.”

Or this from the Washington Times: “In his first five games, Harper has shown off his rocket arm, his blazing speed (one player said the team’s coaches had Harper clocked at 3.8 seconds from home to first), his impressive plate discipline and, of course, his bat. His double Thursday was his fourth extra-base hit in 16 major league at-bats.

“He’s made the bizarre plays, catching a fly ball with his bare hand Wednesday night, and the aggressive ones. Even when he makes an out, he seems to do it dramatically.”

Even Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com has caught the fever.

He wrote, “Harper, 19, runs to first base like Pete Rose. He throws like outfielders used to throw. On Monday, his first day in Washington, he even took a few swings in a pickup softball game near the Washington Monument, evoking Willie Mays playing stickball in the streets of New York.”

Not even a week and the accolades are piling up.

“He plays really hard,” Arizona starter Ian Kennedy said. “That’s all you can really ask for out of someone with his status, where he’s at, being crowned, I don’t know, the saviour or whatever.”

The saviour? That’s as good a tag as any, I guess.

The thing about Harper — and Lawrie last season — is that they seem to be able to walk the walk and talk the talk. They are talented, they are cocky and they know it.

“He’s a baseball player,” said teammate Jayson Werth. “When you’re a baseball player, you can be 15 or you can be 50. If you know how to play the game, you can play.”

So far, Harper has embraced everything his first week in the big leagues has brought. Like Lawrie, he embraces the moment, loves to be the guy at the plate at the pivotal part of the game.

“I just want to come out here, play hard and really try to incorporate myself in the game,” Harper said after Thursday’s game. “I like that. I like when I really come up in those timely situations and try to make something happen.”

Harper has more than made something happen.

The phenom has become the phenomenon. Just one week into his career, his star is burning brightly.

JOLTING JETER

What a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time and through May the obits on Derek Jeter’s playing career were stacked about a mile high.

Story after story and column after column lamented how Jeter’s playing days were all but over, that he could no longer turn on a fastball, was not making solid contact of any kind and that his march toward 3,000 hits had become an agonizing experience for all.

In the second half of the 2011 season, however, Jeter took off and he hasn’t slacked off in 2012.

Through the Yankees’ opening 25 games, Jeter is hitting a major league best 404 (44-for-119), with the 44 hits tops in the majors. Of that hit total, eight have been doubles and four have gone for home runs. He has on OBP of .441 and an OPS of 1.028.

Retirement stories? Not this year.

Looking back, Jeter said he never lost faith in himself last season, that he always took the positive out of every situation.

“That’s the only way you can play this sport,” Jeter said. “That’s the only way you can play here. I mean, no offence, but there’s a lot of negativity around here (New York). The only way to get through it is to be positive and that’s just what I’ve always tried to do. I don’t like to talk about negative things. You should try to take the positive out of anything.”

SHORT HOPS

Left-hander Andy Pettitte is getting close, but he’s not there yet. Yankees GM Brian Cashman said the veteran lefty will be making a start for Triple-A Scranton Wilkes/Barre on Sunday. Cashman would not say if this would be Pettitte’s final start before joining the Yankees. The Yankees recently demoted starter Freddy Garcia and replaced him in the rotation with David Phelps. When Pettitte is ready, the Yankees could remove Phelps or Phil Hughes, who is 1-4 with a 7.48 ERA in five starts this year ... Jake Peavy completed an April that reminded us of his 2007 Cy Young-winning season with the Padres. Heading into Friday’s action, the White Sox right-hander went 3-1 record with a 1.67 ERA and complete games in each of his last two starts. His .162 opponents’ batting average is also the best in the American League ... It was a pretty good week if you happened to be an unemployed geezer. Veteran outfielder Johnny Damon joined the Cleveland Indians in the hope of kick-starting their offence. Damon, 38, appeared in 150 games with Tampa Bay last year when he hit .261 (152-for-582) with 29 doubles, seven triples, 16 homers and 73 RBIs. The Rays, meanwhile, signed 37-year-old outfielder/designated hitter Hideki Matsui to a minor-league contract. Matsui is shaking off the rust at extended spring training. In 2011, Matsui batted .251 for Oakland with 12 homers and 72 RBIs while appearing in 141 games. Then on Friday, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed outfielder Bobby Abreu to a one-year contract. Abreu, 38, was released by the Angels last week after batting .208 in eight games.

RIVERA IS THE GREATEST CLOSER

The knee injury to the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera is, of course, as devastating a loss as there can be.

Rivera is not just a great closer, he is the very best that the game has ever seen.

You can debate at length who was the greatest player of all time, the best starting pitcher, the best home run hitter. But when it comes to the question of who was the game’s greatest closer, there is no debate. It is Mariano Rivera.

Fast forward 100 years and the probability is Rivera will still be considered the greatest closer to have ever played the game. He has been that good. He has been that dominant.

The most amazing aspect of his 18-year career, beyond the obvious durability, is that he achieved his greatness with every left-handed batter who faced him knowing exactly what pitch he was going to throw — a cutter.

Against right-handers, he would mix in fastballs with his cutter, but lefties would get a steady diet of his bread-and-butter pitch.

When a left-handed hitter came to the plate, Rivera didn’t need a signal from his catcher. He could have stood on the mound and shouted, “Here comes a cutter, try and hit it!” each and every time.

I remember talking to Carlos Delgado and Frank Catalanotto about it. Both the slugger Delgado and the hit-for-average Catalanotto said that Rivera threw them nothing but cutters and they could do little with the pitch.

Catalanotto said he tried everything, choking up on his bat, moving back in the box, up in the box — nothing changed. He said no matter what he did, Rivera would fire in a pitch, it would look like a fastball over the middle of the plate, he’d start to swing and it would cut sharply inside and hit just above his fists, shattering his bat.

Rivera did it to them all for 18 majestic years.

Perhaps the Yankees will come up with an adequate replacement, but whoever he is, he won’t be Mariano Rivera.

How can you replace the best that has ever played the game?

POWER SHORTAGE IN CUBS’ OUTFIELD

Blue Jays fans are wringing their hands in worry over the hitting — or lack thereof — by right fielder Jose Bautista.

When your No. 1 offensive threat can rarely get the bat on the ball and has slugged just four home runs through the opening month of the season, there is plenty of reason to fret.

Bautista’s woes, however, are nothing compared to those of the outfielders for the Chicago Cubs.

Currently, the poor Cubbies’ outfield consists of Alfonso Soriano in left, Reed Johnson, the former Blue Jay, in centre and David DeJesus in right.

Through the Cubs’ opening 25 games of the season, the three amigos have combined to hit exactly ZERO home runs — nada, not a one.

In fact, of the five Chicago players who patrol their outfield, the only one who has managed to hit a home run is Joe Mather — and he accomplished the feat last Sunday. Marlon Byrd, who started the season for the Cubs before being traded to Boston last week, didn’t hit one either.

So the Cubs have had six players who play the outfield and they have hit all of one home run combined. For the long-suffering Cubs’ fans, that is something new to cry about.

Overall, the Cubbies have stroked 14 home runs, which ties them for the second-fewest in the majors.

HALLADAY STARTING TO DECLINE?

Roy Halladay was scheduled to re-join the Phillies on Friday following a couple of days off to take care of a personal matter. His next scheduled start is Monday at home against the Mets.

It’s early and all, but 2012 appears to be the making of a pivotal year in the big right-hander’s career.

During spring training, Halladay shook off reports that his velocity was down, stating that he was working on things.

Through his opening five starts, Halladay went 3-2 with a 1.95 ERA, but the velocity on his two-seam fastball just wasn’t there. Instead of hitting the gun at 91-92 mph, Halladay was throwing 87-89. The movement was still there, but he wasn’t getting as many swings and misses.

Then came his start last Wednesday against Atlanta — one of the worst in his career. He blew a 6-0 lead and gave up eight runs, including a grand slam to Brian McCann, in what turned into a no-decision in a 15-13 loss.

The outing was no doubt an aberration, but other than the reduced velocity, the signs are not pointing in an upward direction for the good Doctor.

Through 421/3 innings, Halladay has surrendered 10 walks, which for him is eye-popping. Over the last four seasons, when he threw more than 230 innings all four times, Halladay hardly ever issued a free pass as he surrendered 35, 30, 35 and 33 walks, respectively.

We are hardly suggesting that Halladay is close to being finished as he is bright, extremely competitive and will find a way through whatever problems he is facing. But reduced velocity and a little more trouble with the strike zone are never good signs.

The reports out of Wednesday’s game showed that Halladay had just seven swings-and-misses with none of them coming on his two-seam fastball. In fact, he has logged just one strikeout with his fastball all season.

“At times, it doesn’t seem like his stuff is accelerating through the hitting zone,” Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee told reporters following Wednesday’s outing. “At times it does and at times it doesn’t.”

Halladay has been in the big leagues for 15 seasons and, at some point, there has to be the start of a decline.

Maybe 2012 will be that year.

UNHERALDED KONERKO RACKS UP 400TH DINGER

A tip of the cap, by the way, to the White Sox’s unheralded Paul Konerko, who became the 48th major league player to slug 400 home runs with his blast last Wednesday against the Oakland Athletics.

Konerko ranks seventh in home runs among active players. His home run high is 41, achieved in 2004. He also hit 40 the following season and has slugged 30-or-more homers seven times.

So far this season, the 36-year-old Konerko is batting a healthy .344 (31-for-90) with five homers and 16 RBIs.

Now in his 16th season — he started his career in 1997 with the Dodgers — Konerko has hit 401 homers and driven in 1,277 runs.

As a member of the White Sox, Konerko has homered 393 times in 13 seasons. The lone White Sox player to hit more is Frank Thomas, who crushed 448.

“Yeah, it’s nice,” Konerko said after his 400th. “Every time I’ve gotten to a hundred or whatever it is, you never think you’re going to get to the next one or you think it seems far away. So yeah, it’s cool, but we’ll tuck it away now and we’ll look at it probably when I’m done playing and reopen and probably talk about it more then.”


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