Each time he rubs his hands in the dirt, grips the bat and steps to the plate, Bryce Harper knows what’s expected of him.
Harper is a towering home run and a four-hit game waiting to happen, or at least that’s how legend would have it. The tales of Harper’s prodigious power are creating such a buildup to his at-bats that it’s perceived as almost a letdown when he simply lines a single.
The College of Southern Nevada freshman said he’s aware fans are longing to see him launch 500-foot bombs.
“In high school, I did that, but I was swinging an aluminum bat,” he said. “It’s totally different with the wood. That’s true baseball.”
Harper, who left Las Vegas High School after his sophomore year, made the jump to junior college so he could face better pitching and play in a wood-bat league. Major league scouts were eager to see how he would make the adjustment.
He took the wood to the skeptics, hitting .415 with 23 homers and 68 RBIs in 58 games.
“I’m telling you, he would have hit a minimum of 40 homers with aluminum,” Coyotes coach Tim Chambers said. “It makes a huge difference.”
True baseball is about to give way to the fantasy version, because wood is out and aluminum bats — used by most NJCAA teams — are in for the rest of the postseason.
CSN (46-13) opens against Western Nebraska (24-37) in the four-team Western District Tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday in Lamar, Colo., and the sight of Harper and his teammates wielding aluminum weapons should be a scary thought.
The Coyotes have hit 60 homers this season, 43 more than in 2009. Harper is largely responsible for the power surge, but he’s not alone. Marvin Campbell has 11 homers, Ryan Thomas seven and Trent Cook and Gabe Weidenaar five apiece.
While winning three games in last weekend’s Region 18 tournament at Morse Stadium in Henderson, CSN excelled at small ball and outscored its opponents 23-9 despite not homering.
“With the wood, anybody can beat you,” Chambers said. “We’re dangerous. It’s an extremely good lineup.”
Western Nevada coach D.J. Whittemore needs no convincing. After his team was defeated 8-2 by the Coyotes in Saturday’s title game, Whittemore told the Nevada Appeal, “The truth of the matter is that we ran up against one of the best teams that’s ever been assembled in junior college.”
A trip to the Junior College World Series is on the line this week. Central Arizona (43-18) faces Lamar Community College (47-10) at 11 a.m. Thursday in the other district tournament matchup.
The fans surely will be anticipating big things from the 6-foot-3-inch Harper. The slugging catcher is positioned to be the No. 1 pick by the Washington Nationals in the major league draft June 7.
“I’ve never heard him talk about the draft to me or anybody else,” Chambers said. “He’s really a humble kid. He just wants to play.”
Reporters and photographers from Baseball America, the New York Times and the Washington Post descended on CSN last week to follow Harper’s every move, and he went 4-for-4 with two doubles in Friday’s game.
A story published Saturday in the New York Times described the 17-year-old phenom as “what many view to be the best teenage power-hitting prospect since perhaps Mickey Mantle.”
Harper is the only freshman nominated for the Golden Spikes Award, awarded annually since 1978 to the best amateur baseball player. Only one junior-college player has won the award — pitcher Alex Fernandez of Miami-Dade Community College in 1990, and he began his career at the University of Miami.
“I joke that we start eight sophomores and a junior in high school,” Chambers said. “If Bryce doesn’t win the Golden Spikes, it’s a farce.”
Put an aluminum bat in his hands and he’s that much more dangerous.
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907.