LAKEWOOD - Bryce Harper might be baseball's top prospect, but to the 8,217 fans at FirstEnergy Park on Friday night it was just as important that he was the IHOP Strikeout Player of the Game.
Harper played for the Hagerstown Suns against the Lakewood BlueClaws, the Philadelphia Phillies' single-A affiliate.
The 18-year-old, who is already better known than many major-league players, went a mundane 1-for-4.
In his most meaningful at-bat, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Harper struck out looking at a fastball from Phillies 2010 No. 1 draft choice Jesse Biddle in the first inning. That gave fans 20 percent off a future bill at the Brick Township IHOP. Each game the BlueClaws designate an opposing batter as the IHOP Strikeout Player of the Game.
"I hope I get the voucher, too," Harper said with a laugh after the game.
Harper and Millville High School graduate Mike Trout are considered baseball's top minor-league prospects. Trout plays for the Arkansas Travelers, the Los Angeles Angels' double-A affiliate.
The Washington Nationals selected Harper with the first pick in the 2010 Major League First-Year Player Draft. The Las Vegas native signed a five-year, $9.9 million contract.
Harper is famous mostly because of the route he took to professional baseball. He earned his GED after his sophomore year of high school and enrolled in junior college. Billed as a baseball prodigy, Harper appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May 2009 under the headline "Chosen One."
Lakewood general manager Geoff Brown said the BlueClaws would have been sold out Friday no matter who the opponent was. There were postgame fireworks - always a big draw.
But a glance behind the visitors' third-base dugout revealed that Friday night was no ordinary minor-league game.
About 100 fans, many of them wearing Washington Nationals gear, stood at both ends of the dugout to try to get Harper's autograph.
"I love taking care of the kids," Harper said. "I love them being out there and (having them ask) for my autograph."
Hagerstown manager Brian Daubach said one of Harper's best qualities is that he's a baseball fan. Harper wears No. 34 because the numbers add up to seven, baseball great Mickey Mantle's number.
"I'm sure he went to ballgames and tried to get autographs as a kid," Daubach said.
Fans George Peddie and Justin Weigand, both 14 and from Lacey Township, had a plan to try to snare an autograph.
They wore jerseys of major-league pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
"This was the perfect night to wear them," Peddie said.
The Nationals selected Strasburg with the first pick of the 2009 draft. Strasburg wowed fans with his ability to strike out hitters last year but he is currently out after undergoing arm surgery.
Whether the boys' jerseys worked or not, Harper jogged off the field after batting and fielding practice and tossed a ball to Peddie. The phenom then signed it.
Harper signed autographs for five minutes before heading into the clubhouse.
Fans weren't the only ones who wanted to see Harper. Ten reporters from Philadelphia and New York newspapers as well as ESPN. com and other Internet sites attended the game.
The Nationals do their best to shelter Harper from the media. A handout in the press box detailed the team's media policy regarding Harper. Pregame interviews are not allowed. He only speaks after the game.
"There's more people wanting autographs. There's more people sticking around the hotels," Hagerstown hitting coach and former major-leaguer Marlon Anderson said of the atmosphere around the team with Harper on the roster. "(He's) an 18-year-old kid, and I want to protect him from some of the craziness and some of the hype. He's here to play baseball. He can be a fan favorite. I love the fact that he stops and signs autographs, but once he leaves this field and heads to the hotel he should have a little peace."
Harper started slowly at Hagerstown. He underwent an eye exam last month and got contact lenses. In 20 games with contact lenses before Friday, he's batted .480 with seven home runs.
Harper began Friday leading the South Atlantic League in batting with a .395 average and in home runs with eight.
"He's got extremely, extremely quick hands," Anderson said.
Anderson said Harper blends in with his teammates.
"He's the same as any 18-year-old kid," the coach said. "He has the same personality and for me that's what makes him good. They (other players) rip on him and give him a hard time just like they would anybody else."
Harper didn't wow the fans Friday.
After his first-inning strikeout, he lined out to right field. Harper extended his hitting streak to 17 games with an infield single in the top of the sixth inning. But he was then thrown out stealing. Harper flied out to center field in the top of the eighth inning.
Harper and Hagerstown play three more games in Lakewood this series - at 4:05 p.m. today, 1:05 p.m. Sunday and 6:35 p.m. Monday.
So many games in a row is part of the grind of professional baseball that Harper is learning to handle.
"You get used to it," he said. "5-Hour energy (drink) becomes your best friend."
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