PHOENIX – Seems Kris Bryant is too nice a guy, too polite a rookie, to remember any good stories about playing with and against Washington Nationals hot dog outfielder Bryce Harper as a kid in Las Vegas.
“The thing that stands out to me was just how good he was and how much better he was than the competition,” said Bryant, the Cubs rookie who faces off against the Nationals’ star slugger Monday for the first time since they last played against each other in high school.
No bat flips? No ejections? No double fist pumps?
“No,” Bryant said. “He knew he was good. And that’s a good trait to have in this game. You’ve got to go out there extremely confident. And he was confident.
“I think that helped him get to where he is today. Because he doesn’t care who’s on the mound, he doesn’t care who the other team is; he’s always going to go out there and believe he’s better than the opponent.”
That he showed it made Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in 2010, one of the least liked players in the game among traditionalists even before his high-profile debut in 2012 – and made his back the target of a Cole Hamels fastball the first time they faced each other, a week later.
But Harper, already in his fourth season at just 22, also has backed it up.
He made Hamels pay for the dart by stealing home on a pickoff throw later that inning. And he arrives at Wrigley Field for this week’s three-game series as one of the hottest, strongest hitters in the game, with 11 homers and 26 RBIs in the Nats’ last 16 games – a major reason the Nationals have won 19 of their last 24.
“I like when I first saw him, how hard he played, and I always appreciate that,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said, recalling the “impressive” steal off Hamels and “acumen” it showed. “And obviously, he’s pretty good. So I probably would like him.”
He’s still got the bad-boy reputation – ejected twice in eight days within the last two weeks – but those league-leading run, homer, on-base and slugging numbers have earned him a wide berth, and growing respect.
“I could see if you’re in the other dugout, you’d probably hate my guts,” Harper recently told the Washington Post. “Which is fine. Which is totally fine with me. If I had that uniform on, you’d probably love me. But I would expect that people in the other dugout probably can’t stand the player that I am.”
Bryant, nine months older than Harper, called their rivalry growing up “friendly competition,” and talked about being “amazed” at Harper’s ability, including an “80-mph” fastball as an 11-year-old pitcher.
But they couldn’t seem more different in personality, much less tracks to the same big-league field for the first time Monday.
Harper skipped his last year of high school to focus on baseball. Bryant, who fell to the 18th round in the 2010 draft because of signability questions, went to college, earned an invitation to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship and eventually was drafted in 2013 No. 2 overall by the Cubs.
“Education was important for me,” Bryant said. “We both took different paths and we’re kind of in the same spot now. It’s definitely an interesting story. And it worked out for him, and I’m happy it did.”