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03/12/11 7:00 PM ET

After win, Nats option Harper to Class A

Outfield prospect cut from big league camp after hitting .389

VIERA, Fla. -- Minutes after they defeated the Yankees, 6-5, at Space Coast Stadium on Saturday afternoon, the Nationals optioned outfielder Bryce Harper to Class A Hagerstown.

Although he knew he wasn't going to be on Washington's Opening Day roster out of Spring Training, Harper, 18, took the news hard, according to two baseball sources.

Harper tried to explain to manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Mike Rizzo that he would be better off staying in big league camp and learning more about batting and playing defense from hitting coach Rick Eckstein and third-base coach Bo Porter, respectively.

But the team wants Harper to start playing every day instead of entering off the bench, as he has been all spring. The Nationals want Harper to improve his baserunning, defense and throwing accuracy, which cost the club a game against the Astros on Thursday.

"We think Bryce needs to go to the Minor Leagues, get four or five at-bats per game and prepare himself for the season -- that's the reason we got him out," Rizzo said. "He was getting one or two at-bats per game, playing in spurts. He needs to be prepared for the season, get plenty of at-bats and get reps in the outfield.

Vowing that he wanted to be on the 25-man roster on Opening Day, Harper -- the first overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft -- played like it. He appeared in 13 Spring Training games and went 7-for-18 (.389) with five RBIs.

When the media spoke to Harper, his disappointment was evident in his facial expressions, but he was diplomatic when talking about the demotion.

"I have to go down there and get a couple of more at-bats per day," Harper said. "That will be good for me. It was a great experience here. I couldn't ask for anything better. I loved every minute of it. Hopefully, I'll be back soon.

"Nobody likes to leave the big league club. This is the life that you want to live every day. It's just the process. I'll just go down to the Minor League club. I'm going to bust my butt. I'm going to play hard, like I always do."

Infielder Jerry Hairston Jr. came away impressed by what he saw from Harper. Hairston said he has never seen an 18-year-old like Harper so advanced when it comes to baseball skills. During games, for example, Harper would often talk to veteran players and pick their brains about what was going on during specific sequences.

"I loved the way he carried himself," Hairston said. "He is a confident kid, but he is not over the top. While he was here, he was humble. He is a guy that soaks up what veterans tell him. He is eager to learn, and that is going to bode well for him.

"Now, he is learning to be a right fielder. He is going to be in the big leagues quicker than people think. He has that type of talent. He really needs to get four or five at-bats per game and concentrate on getting better. He did a great job for his first big league camp. He is only 18, but he should really be coming out of high school. I can't think of another 18-year-old who could have done it."

Harper indicated that he is not going to the Minor Leagues to lose and hopes to be in the Majors by midseason.

"I'm going to be a leader down there, take everybody on my back and let's roll," Harper said. "That's the guy I am. Hopefully, I'll see you guys back in July."

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time He also could be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.