Friday, April 29, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Top MLB prospects Bryce Harper and Jameson Taillon face off in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- So much talent, so close together.

Only 60 feet, 6 inches separated them Wednesday. In the batter's box stood Washington Nationals farmhand Bryce Harper, the kid who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, the one all the scouts adore. Name a baseball tool, he maxes it out. Power. Speed. Contact. Arm strength. Range. Competitive desire. He is as close to diamond perfection as an 18-year-old can be.

On the mound stood 6-foot-6, 225-pound pitcher Jameson Taillon, who later would admit he was a little more amped up than usual. This was his first professional start.

Taillon (pronounced "TIE-own") would have been the consensus No. 1 pick in last year's draft -- had Harper not been in it. Instead, the Texas high school product went No. 2 overall to Pittsburgh and reaped a $6.5 million signing bonus, second only to Stephen Strasburg's $7.5 million windfall in 2009. Baseball America projects Taillon will become the first true Pirates ace in 30 years.

First, though, he must conquer the South Atlantic League.

In almost any other sport, a novel showdown like this would have been national news for a night. But this is baseball, beautiful baseball, where even the can't-miss guys must toil in relative anonymity before reaching the big time.

A few hundred fans braved rainy conditions to come out to Appalachian Power Park on Wednesday to see Harper's Hagerstown Suns battle Taillon's West Virginia Power. Pittsburgh's major newspapers sent writers 3 hours south to report on the kid's debut. Several Pirates executives were in attendance.

Other than that, though, it was business as usual in the minors. The Power didn't even announce the scheduled starting pitcher on its website. Rod Blackstone, longtime assistant to the mayor of Charleston, was here, but he is always here. He is the team's biggest fan. They call him the "Toast Man," because he literally plugs in a toaster into an outlet in the stands behind home plate, browns some bread, and tosses it in the air when an opposing player strikes out.

Only in the minors.

Blackstone had his loaf ready when Harper batted on Tuesday night, but the only thing that came out crisp was the slugger's swing. Shortly after enduring some good-natured Blackstone heckling, Harper had belted a majestic home run to right field -- his fourth dinger in 56 pro at-bats.

"That," Taillon said, "was a bomb."

So Taillon knew what he was facing Wednesday. The two had squared off in trials for the U.S. national squad in 2009, ultimately becoming teammates with the Stars and Stripes.

"He's a good guy," Taillon said. "I know him pretty well off the field. I went to Venezuela with him [for the Pan American Games], threw to him in that gold medal game. We got to dogpile together when we won that gold medal.

"He's extremely competitive and he's got a certain swagger about him that rubs some people the wrong way. But he plays the game hard, and he's extremely talented."

The same could be said of Taillon, who is often compared to a young Josh Beckett. The 19-year-old's first professional pitch registered at 96 mph Wednesday. He also has one of the nastiest curves at any level.

"Every single one of us, one through nine, were excited to get out there and face a guy of that caliber," Harper said. "He came out there and he was throwing hard -- 96, 97. Hit 99 a couple times. I saw 100 up on the gun. You see that, you know that's real good stuff."

Alas, Harper did not see Taillon's best. The pitcher's first three offerings to Harper were outside. Harper fouled off a 3-0 fastball, then watched ball four sail high and away.

"I didn't go at him the way I wanted to," Taillon said. "It wasn't an intentional thing; I just missed on 'em. Honestly I didn't get any more adrenaline throwing to him than I did with any other batter."

And that's to be expected. Wednesday's outing -- truncated at 45 pitches when the rains suspended the game in the second inning -- was the beginning of a long grind for Taillon. And the lone at-bat continued a steady progression for Harper, who could be in the Carolina League by season's end. He's hitting .286 with a .948 OPS and 15 RBIs, facing pitchers that are as much as 6 years older than he.

"I feel really comfortable out there," said Harper, who starts in right field. "I really do. Even in my at-bats that I strike out or I pop up or something, I feel really good out there. I feel like I'm on pitches. I'm not really getting overmatched that much."

When the weather finally ended it Wednesday, Power officials scrambled to convert a supply closet into a makeshift interview room for Taillon. Taillon would speak before a small group of cameras and tape recorders, talking about pitch counts and adjustments and where he goes from here.

"It's good to get it out of the way," he said.

Now it's all about finding a routine -- something Harper knows well. This is baseball, after all, and even a guy with a $9.9 million major league contract -- the largest ever given to a position player following the draft -- has Yeoman responsibilities.

"Everybody has a job," he said with a smile.

So Harper picked up a bucket of helmets in his left hand and grabbed three bats with his right. Then he placed a towel on his head and walked out of the dugout, into the rain.

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