Normally, just an appearance from Nationals pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg might be enough to fill up a ballpark. However, baseball fans around Los Angeles can witness something else special this evening: the major league debut of prospect Bryce Harper.
Harper is expected to get the start in left field on Saturday night for Washington, finally kicking off the Strasburg-Harper era for the Nats in the second of three straight games versus the Dodgers.
With the Nationals slated to place third baseman Ryan Zimmerman on the 15-day disabled list due to a shoulder injury, a roster spot was open and the organization decided to fill it with Harper, the top pick of the 2010 draft and the second-ranked prospect in all of baseball according to MLB.com.
Harper, who at 19 years old will become the youngest player to suit up for the Nationals, hit .286 in nine spring training games, but the club decided to start the talented slugger in Triple A. Harper has hit just .250 with one homer and three RBI over 20 games with Syracuse, but general manager Mike Rizzo said the left-handed hitter has done better at the plate as of late.
"I just witnessed him playing the last three days in Rochester for the Syracuse club," Rizzo said on Friday. "He is swinging the bat extremely well right now and looked very comfortable in left field. So with that said, we're not going to vary from our developmental plan for Bryce. I've always had in mind that I would love for him to get 300 to 350 at-bats in the minor leagues. As time goes by and Zim comes off the disabled list, we'll monitor the situation and we'll make our decision at that time."
Rizzo would not commit to Harper either staying with the club or returning to the minors when Zimmerman returned, but did say that Harper was being brought up to play and not sit on the bench. Hence, though he has been working in center field with Syracuse, he'll get the start tonight in left.
Harper's debut will also come on the same day that Strasburg is set to get his fifth start of the season. Fans of the Nationals have been waiting for the day that Strasburg, the top pick of the 2009 draft, and Harper hit the field together.
Rizzo and manager Davey Johnson are still being cautious with their ace as well. The club has said that Strasburg's innings will be limited this season, his first full campaign since missing most of 2011 due to Tommy John surgery.
The 23-year-old hurled seven innings in his first start of the season and has followed that outing up with three straight six-inning appearances. He won the first two of those before getting a no-decision on Saturday versus the Marlins.
Strasburg did not allow a run and scattered four hits and one walk with six strikeouts. Still, Johnson pulled him out of a tie game for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth.
"He was great," Johnson told his team's website. "It was too early to let him hit and go one more inning. That one more inning could be invaluable later in the year. I wasn't even tempted today to let him go further, even though he had a rough time in the sixth. He was throwing great."
Strasburg has faced the Dodgers once before and it came in his first start last year after retuning from his arm injury. Pitching on a limit, he sprinkled two hits over five scoreless innings without a walk on Sept. 6, his first outing in over a year.
Strasburg and Harper will try to prevent the Nats from losing a third straight game for the first time this season. The National League East leaders are on just their second two-game slide of 2012 after last night's series-opening 3-2 defeat.
Andre Ethier hit a two-run homer in the first inning and Juan Uribe drove in the deciding run in the fourth frame with a single for the Dodgers, who had lost three of four. Ethier ran his MLB-leading RBI total to 24, one more than teammate Matt Kemp.
Clayton Kershaw went eight innings and gave up just two runs on three hits with a walk and six strikeouts.
"I was able to throw pitches when I needed to," said Kershaw. "There was nothing pretty about it. Getting those early runs was huge tonight."
Adam LaRoche hit a two-run home run in the sixth frame for the Nationals, while Ross Detwiler gave up all three runs on five hits with two walks over six innings.
"I battled all night and didn't have my best stuff," said Detwiler. "But when you pitch against Kershaw you don't want to give up early runs.
The Dodgers may also have a close eye on their starting pitcher after Chad Billingsley was roughed up for nine runs -- five earned -- on four hits and four walks over just 3 1/3 frames of a 12-0 loss on Sunday in Houston. The right-hander had struggled with a sore groin muscle in his previous outing, but blamed his rough start on control.
"It's tough to pitch when you're not getting ahead of hitters and you're not throwing strikes," Billingsley mused.
Billingsley entered last Sunday's outing 2-0 with a 1.33 earned run average through his first three starts, but gave up a two-run homer in the first and a grand slam in the second.
The 27-year-old is 4-1 with a 3.21 ERA in seven career games versus the Nats.
Los Angles won four of its six meetings with Washington last season. The Nationals are also 5-16 at Dodger Stadium since relocating from Montreal in 2005. That season also was the last time the franchise won a series at Chavez Ravine.