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"Don't get comfortable."
The scolding from Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond hit Bryce Harper, his teenage teammate, like a cold hand across the face. Desmond kept going: "You look too comfortable right now."
"Yep," confirmed Washington third base coach Trent Jewett, standing in the Nationals Park dugout before batting practice last Aug. 17. "You do look comfortable."
Baseball fate, like a Dickensian schoolmaster, had reproved the kid after fiendishly allowing him the illusion of instant success. After making his major league debut last April 28 at age 19, Harper hit a jaunty .302 in his first 42 games. But he batted .203 over the next two months, including a 3-for-32 sit-in-the-corner humiliation on an early August road trip. When Desmond and Jewett cornered him upon the team's return to D.C., they were telling Harper that he looked as if he was simply happy to be a big leaguer and waiting for providence to pull him out of his slump.
"What?" Harper barked. "I can't believe you just said that to me. Trust me, I'm not comfortable. I've never been comfortable in my life."
"I was furious," Harper recalls. "And that game I went off. I really think that's what lit my fire."
A few hours after the dugout reprimand, Harper smashed a 412-foot home run off Johan Santana of the Mets—a line drive that left his bat at 110 mph, the second fastest he turned around any of his 22 home runs in 2012, according to hittrackeronline.com. Beginning that night he put up an impressive slash line of .327/.384/.660 over his final 44 games—in the middle of a pennant race, no less—to help Washington win the franchise's first National League East title in 31 years.
It was a historic performance by Harper, who of course was named the NL Rookie of the Year. Perhaps only Beethoven and Bieber have been better before their 20th birthdays: Among teenage major leaguers, Harper set records for total bases (254), extra-base hits (57) and WAR (5.0, displacing Hall of Famer Mel Ott, who had 3.7 WAR as a 19-year-old in 1928) while ranking second in home runs (behind Tony Conigliaro's 24 in 1964) and runs (98, behind Buddy Lewis's 100 in 1936).
Don't get comfortable? That goes double for this season, and not just for the Nationals' outfield prodigy. With Harper and the American League Rookie of the Year, Angels centerfielder Mike Trout, at the fore, the 2012 rookie class was among the most accomplished ever. Now, as camps are in full swing across Florida and Arizona, those players are facing a task that has often proved more difficult than a breakout rookie season: producing a worthy sequel.
Harper is as confident about meeting this challenge as he was the one from Desmond. The day after Washington's season ended with a collapse against St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, Harper decided on his 2013 statistical goals and stored them in his phone, where he, at least, can access them easily. "Some numbers on there are kind of crazy," he says. "I don't want to say [them] because I don't want people to blow up. They're possible, but I think everything can be possible. It's more like, Hey, I'm going to set the bar as high as I can. But your average person or team would look at it and go, 'This kid's an idiot.'