Baseball is a different animal than other sports, so those of us in the media who keep playing the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird card regarding Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are overlooking an inconvenient truth: The pitcher is the guy with the baseball in his hand, so he controls the vast majority of what takes place on a given night.
The first big league meeting ever between Trout and Harper featured two starting pitchers who aren’t going to adorn a season-ticket brochure anytime soon. The Los Angeles Angels’ Garrett Richards, a former Oklahoma Sooner with a 98-mph fastball and occasionally wandering control, stifled the Washington Nationals on one hit through six innings Monday night. His Washington counterpart, Tanner Roark, countered with 6 2/3 shutout innings before leaving to some well-deserved applause in the seventh.
The attendance at Nationals Park was 24,371, or 58.7 percent of capacity, which goes to show that even the novelty of two wunderkinds in the same venue can fill only so many seats on a clear April night in the nation’s capital.
Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk in four plate appearances. Trout contributed two singles in five at-bats, and a pair of double-play takeout slides that were hard enough to leave a mark. But at the end of the night, they both stepped aside as their elders put their stamp on the proceedings. Albert Pujols started an eighth-inning rally with an infield squibber and a stolen base, and old war horse Raul Ibanez came off the bench and lined a three-run double into the gap to propel the Angels to a 4-2 win in the opener of a three-game series.
On a night that revolved around baseball’s long-term future, the winning rally could have been sponsored by Lipitor. But the game was still a ringing endorsement for interleague play, and the notion that MLB does right by customers by giving them snippets of something they really want between the inevitable filler in the schedule.
Heaven knows, that quirky 15-15 configuration has left us with some early matchups that are less than riveting. That rain-induced day-night doubleheader between Cleveland and San Diego at Progressive Field in early April comes to mind. And the recent Seattle-Miami matchup certainly didn’t look like much on paper, although Giancarlo Stanton gave it an injection of oomph with a game-winning grand slam.
Washington and Los Angeles, in contrast, provided some “must see” April interleague viewing because it’s the first time Harper and Trout have taken the field together since they were teammates with the Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League in 2011. The double-bill was sufficiently hype-worthy that Nationals broadcast team Bob Carpenter and F.P. Santangelo devoted almost their entire pregame setup to the occasion. They changed course only at the end, when Carpenter offered up the “footnote” that Pujols has 498 career homers and could be making history any day now.
Seeing Trout and Harper on the same field together lent context to their respective paths and the attributes that link and distinguish them. Harper has been the designated golden boy since age 16, while Trout somehow lasted until the 25th pick in the 2009. Trout, who turns 23 in August, is 14 months older than Harper. But they arrived from the minors together on April 28, 2012, instantly looking as if they belonged.
Their disparate styles have helped fuel the “rivalry” narrative, even though they’re friends who enjoy texting one another. Harper burns with an intensity that scouts love and fans either embrace or find off-putting. Trout leaps fences and comes away with the ball in his glove and a disarming smile on his face. Harper has more raw power and a better arm, while Trout runs faster, controls the strike zone better and plays superior defense in the outfield. They’re also in different financial neighborhoods now that Trout has agreed to a six-year, $144.5 million extension and Harper has to muddle along with that measly $6.25 million signing bonus as the first pick in 2010.
All uber-prospects, no matter how highly acclaimed, have to proceed at their own pace. Ken Griffey Jr. hit .264 in his first season with Seattle, while Barry Bonds batted .223 and .261 in his first two years with Pittsburgh. Harper won a Rookie of the Year award at age 19, but he hasn’t had much margin for error breaking in alongside Trout, whose idea of “struggling” is finishing second to Miguel Cabrera twice in the American League MVP balloting.
In some ways, Harper’s occasional travails and missteps make him the more compelling human story. He has gone from the cocky, eyeblack-smeared junior college Bryce to the wall-banging, bull-in-a-china-shop rookie to the Bryce who’s ready to take on a more expansive leadership role in Washington. One day he’s in a 3-for-21 funk with 10 strikeouts and proclaiming himself “pretty lost right now.” A week later, you look up and he has raised his average from .192 to .412.
Over the weekend, Harper became the poster boy for new manager Matt Williams’ quest to put a stamp on the team when he jogged out a ground ball, peeled off toward the dugout and received an instant benching. Oddly enough, the Nationals’ TV feed still features a promotional spot for Harper with the caption “Nothing But Hustle.”
A National League scout who was in town for the weekend series with St. Louis, and the infamous jog, thinks Harper could stand to relax a little. After a slow start last season, the Nationals were hoping to bust out with authority this year. But they lead the majors in errors, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos are on the disabled list, and they’re muddling along at 11-9.
“It’s almost like he’s trying to do too much right now,” the scout said. “He started the year and his timing was horrible. Then he got real hot. Now I think he’s trying to throw that whole team on his shoulders because they didn’t win last year and Zimmerman is out. He doesn’t have to do that.”
If one player secretly burns to outdo the other in the Trout-Harper “rivalry,” the conventional wisdom is that it’s Harper -- no matter how much they both downplay any semblance of competition with their public comments.
“I’m sure he’s like a caged lion,” the scout said of Harper before Monday’s game. “I’d probably throw him a changeup the first pitch, and bounce a breaking ball the second pitch and see if I can feed off all the energy he has going.”
Richards strayed from that script, pumping five straight fastballs on his way to striking Harper out swinging. It was that kind of night.
The good news is that the Angels and Nationals will meet again Tuesday, with Tyler Skaggs on the mound for Los Angeles and Taylor Jordan pitching for Washington in the second of three installments of April appointment baseball. If you’re a Mickey Mantle fan, you’re probably partial to Trout. If you prefer something more edgy -- say, in the Pete Rose mold -- you probably like Harper.
And if you love baseball, you just relish the thought of them sharing the same field, as the quintessential endorsement for interleague play.