Harper, living up to hype, sets sights even higher

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DENVER -- At the age of 16, Bryce Harper adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was labeled "Baseball's Chosen One," and an accompanying article proclaimed him the sports world's most exciting prodigy since LeBron James went from high school to the NBA.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was impressed.

"I thought being on the cover at 20 was pressure," Hurdle said back in June 2009. "But 16?"

Hurdle was talking from firsthand experience. He was the cover boy of Sports Illustrated's baseball preview in March 1978, the magazine declaring the 20-year-old Royals prospect to be "This Year's Phenom."

Hurdle did wind up playing in all or parts of 10 seasons in the big leagues, appearing in 515 games, much more a journeyman than a phenom, but he evolved over time and is now one of the more respected managers in the game.

And Hurdle has become an admirer of Harper, who at the age of 22, and in his fourth big league season, is living up to the hype given to that high school kid six years ago.

Harper has won over anybody who has taken the time to watch him play from his days in high school, where he earned a degree ahead of schedule so he could enroll at College of Southern Nevada to become eligible at the age of 17 for the 2010 Draft in which the Nationals used the first overall pick to select him.

Harper was good at the age of 19 when he was selected to the All-Star team for the first time. Fifty-eight days shy of his 23rd birthday, he is more than good. Harper is proving to be one of the elite players in the game.

"Sixteen, being on the cover of SI," Nats manager Matt Williams said. "It's hard to deal with, but he handled it well."

And, most importantly, Harper is as good as advertised.

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After the Nationals' 4-1 win over the Rockies on Wednesday, Harper was third in the National League with a .327 average, leading the league in runs scored (84) and home runs (30), tied for sixth with 73 RBIs and, in what Williams finds most impressive, third in the NL with 88 walks.

In the series opener Tuesday night, Harper tied a franchise record with four walks, which Williams said underscored his emergence as an elite player.

"He understands himself more," said Williams. "He's not chasing pitches out of the strike zone. That's why his walks are up. That's why his home runs are up."

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Harper also is healthy. That, he said, is what has been the biggest difference between 2015 and his first three big league seasons in which he had a combined .272 average with a total of 55 home runs. Harper also played only 228 games over the past two years.

"The last two years, I had two months off each year, and then I'd come back and it was like Spring Training," Harper said. "By September I felt good, but the season was ending."

This year, Harper has appeared in 112 of the Nats' first 119 games, starting in 111, and has sat out back-to-back games only once.

That's all part of Harper becoming the player he wants to be.

"People always want to see more, which is why the game is so great," Harper said. "You always push to get to the next level. You hear people say the sky's the limit? Well, there is outer space."

It underscores the talks Williams has had with the young star.

"Our conversations aren't mechanical," Williams said. "They have been philosophical. I ask him what he wants to do. Who he wants to be."

Harper doesn't hesitate to answer.

"I want to be Bryce Harper," he said. "I want to be myself, going out and doing what I can to help this organization bring a World Championship back to Washington.

"This is an organization that gave a 17-year-old a chance. I have to tip my hat to them for giving me an opportunity at a young age. I want to get better every day. I always will appreciate this game. You want to have a chip on your shoulder, but you have to appreciate where you are."

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Young as he is, Harper has an awareness of where he is, and what it means.

"You have to remember you are playing a game for a living and you have to enjoy that," he said. "If you are not enjoying it, you need to stop playing. There are going to be challenges. They come with the game."

Harper paused.

"There are two types of baseball player," he said. "You are either a humbled player or a player about to be humbled. The sooner you learn that, the better off you will be."

Harper also understands the fickle nature of fans, particularly when the Nationals are on the road.

"I remember Reggie Jackson said 'They don't boo nobodys,"' said Harper. "I took that into consideration when I was 15, 16 years old. You see it as a sign of respect."

And at the age of 22, Harper has earned the respect.

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