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A former phenom himself, Hurdle impressed with Harper's growth

| Saturday, May 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
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The Nationals' Bryce Harper can't make the catch on a home run by the Pirates' Jordy Mercer (not pictured) on Friday, May 3, 2013, at PNC Park.
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The Nationals' Bryce Harper throws his helmet after striking out in the eighth inning against the Pirates on Friday, May 3, 2013, at PNC Park.

Given today's vast media terrain, no teenaged baseball player ever received as much attention before setting foot on a big league diamond as the Nationals' Bryce Harper. The expectations were huge, and the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year blasted them.

Now a grizzled 20, Harper is clearing a bar he has raised even higher. Playing with a bruised ribcage, Harper is 2-for-20 in his past six games after Friday's 3-1 loss to the Pirates. But he is still hitting .320 and began the night leading the league in OPS and tied for the lead in multi-hit games. His nine homers in April were a club record.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle knows the perils of the hype machine. He came up as a player during a prehistoric time lacking the Internet and ESPN among other current necessities. But within that context he still was billed as the next big thing in a manner not unlike Harper.

“I think it's been great the exposure he's gotten,” said Hurdle, who, at 20, appeared on a Sports Illustrated cover labeled “This Year's Phenom.” But, he added, “It's a different time frame. It's three decades later. The socialization that he had along his journey, I think he's in a much better place than I could have mustered together for my menial ways back when I was a much younger kid.”

Hurdle's talent was anything but menial, but he carried on too much off the field and perhaps succumbed to the pressure. If Harper does not embrace pressure, it's only because he doesn't seem to feel it. From an early age he has excelled at every level, often against older, more mature players, and never blinked even though every at-bat, headlong slide or umpire beef has been duly recorded, viewed, blogged on and tweeted.

This week, ESPN aired an hour-long documentary about Harper, whose first major league appearance was barely more than a year ago.

“I think he got exposed to a lot more,” Hurdle said. “It probably wasn't as big a jump from a media standpoint even though the media is much bigger now. But he's kind of experienced this since the age of 15 and 16. I applaud his efforts to date. He's done a very good job of handling all the situations.”

He has not done this alone.

“A lot of that goes back to his parents and how they've raised him and how close they are,” Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. “I think that foundation really sets him up to handle lot. I think he's done a wonderful job in regards to everything he's doing and what he's going to do and how he's handling himself.”

Harper said his offseason work concentrated on building his strength to offset an inevitable loss of weight during the six-month grind. He also committed himself to adjusting his strike zone and laying off bad pitches.

“I walked a pretty good amount in the minor leagues, high school, college,” he said. “Last year, I think I expanded the zone and tried to do a little too much. Just because it's your first year, you're trying to prove something. I'm trying to get a little more patient this year, trying to wait for my pitch and get something in my zone that I can drive.”

It remains a work in progress. Nationals manager Davey Johnson calls it a “big adjustment.” Harper, he said, “is real driven, and he wants to make something happen when he gets up there. He's starting to trust the guys behind him that they'll do something, and he can get in bad habits by expanding the zone. Pitchers can sense that.

“They're gonna make you chase,” Johnson said. “And he's getting mature enough to where he's not chasing.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib

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