More than one Vegas favorite in Bryce Harper-vs.-Kris Bryant bout

SHARE More than one Vegas favorite in Bryce Harper-vs.-Kris Bryant bout

Why doesn’t anyone seem to like Bryce Harper?

“I couldn’t explain it to you, brother,” said the Washington National’s young star, who doubled and walked during the Nats’ 2-1 victory over the Cubs on Monday at Wrigley Field.

Maybe it’s because of moments like in the Cubs’ third inning Monday, when Harper chased down Dexter Fowler’s long drive to right-center for a catch just below a throng of screaming, angry bleacher fans – then after a single robbed Anthony Rizzo of a hit with a leaping catch near the brick wall that he smacked one step later.

Maybe it’s the way he went from second to third on a foul popup off the first-base line in the fourth.

Or that in this marquee battle of young Las Vegas sluggers it was the Cubs’ Kris Bryant who hit the home run, but it was Bryce Harper who walked away with the victory.

“Between the lines I play the way I do, and if I’m on your team, you probably like me, and if I’m on the opposing side you probably hate me,” said the 22-year-old outfielder, who seems as chill and poised off the field as he is brash and demonstrative on it. “It’s just how it is. It’s perception.

“I just love playing the game. I’m going to play hard. I’m trying to kick your teeth in every single day,” he said. “But off the field I’m going to respect you like any other person. I don’t look at myself as Bryce Harper this big old guy off the field. On the field, absolutely I do because I want to be the best player I can. So I have to act that way so I can face the pitcher out there and do the things I want to do.”

If this week’s Cubs-Nationals series at Wrigley Field is about the latest chance for the Cubs to measure how good they might be, it’s also a chance for those tuning in to see a showcase of some of the top 25-and-under hitting talent in the game.

Certainly, the top 23-and-under talent from Las Vegas.

It’s good for baseball, said Bryant, the sixth-week rookie who shared the same field with his hometown rival for the first time since Bryant’s Bonanza High School played Harper’s Las Vegas High.

“When we were younger, we used to call him ‘Silk’ because he was so smooth with everything he did,” Harper said. “He played third, he played short, played a little outfield, pitched of course – he always hit very well.

“It’s great to see he’s doing what he’s doing. Everybody knew he was going to be an incredible talent. … I was surprised he wasn’t [drafted] first overall.”

Harper, already a fourth-year veteran, skipped his senior year of high school and was drafted No. 1 overall in 2010. Bryant was an honor student who spend three years at the University of San Diego before being drafted No. 2 overall in 2013.

Harper was not surprised, however, to see Bryant sent to the minors despite perhaps the best spring hitting performance in a decade. Leading up to Bryant’s service-time-related assignment to the minors, Harper tweeted it would be a “joke” if Bryant didn’t make the club, adding #VegasMade and #TheTruth.

“I think he needed to be in the big leagues, but I understand the business side of it,” said Harper, who, like Bryant, is represented by agent Scott Boras. “If I was the Cubs I’d want him for another year, too. I’d do the same thing. But should he have been in the big leagues? I think so.”

Now that he is, the focus this week is all about Harper’s red-hot slugging coming into the series – 11 homers, 26 RBIs in the last 17 games – and how well Bryant and the young Cubs stack up, and keep up.

After losing to spot starter Tanner Roark and the Nats’ bullpen on a day the wind blew out, things don’t look especially bright for the home team with All-Star Jordan Zimmermann and Cy Young ace Max Scherzer going the next two nights for the Nationals.

Left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, making his second start since coming off the DL, pitched into the sixth inning, allowing only one run on Denard Span’s homer leading off the game.

But after he got Harper on a popup to lead off the sixth, right-hander Justin Grimm took over in a 1-1 game and allowed a two-out homer to Wilson Ramos that proved the game-winner.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon lauded the effort and the pitching.

“And my takeaway is we’re as good as anybody we’ve played so far,” the manager said.

Almost as good as the hottest team in the league on this day. If not for perhaps Michael Taylor’s diving catch in the second that robbed Wada of a sure extra-base hit and RBI – or maybe those two catches in the third by Harper.

“They pretty much beat us with outfield defense today,” Maddon said.

Just one more reason a Cub fan might find for not liking Harper.

Not that he could hear from any of them when he wasn’t venturing into center to make catches.

“It’s kind of sad there’s not going to be anybody in right field for me,” he said of the still vacant bleacher section. “But it’s a lot of fun playing here.”

Especially on days when the wind blows out. Like all the big sluggers, Harper certainly checked the flags before the game, right?

“No,” he said. “I don’t need wind. I’m good.”

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