Harper, Miller give a glimpse of future

We can look forward to many Harper-Miller showdowns over the next decade. USA TODAY Sports

VIERA, Fla. -- It was one of those slices of spring training life that looked like and felt like a lot more than two guys just trying to get their work in.

Bryce Harper versus Shelby Miller.

The rookie of the year versus one of the best pitching prospects you’ll find occupying anybody’s mound this time of year.

Runner on third. One out. First inning of a Washington Nationals-St. Louis Cardinals Grapefruit League tussle in the first week of March. Nothing much on the line other than the fun of a good old-fashioned mano a mano.

“It’s probably fun for you all to watch it,” Miller would say later. “But it’s even more fun to actually face each other.”

And the winner was ... Shelby Miller.

By strikeout. On the 11th pitch of a furious at-bat, by a 20-year-old guy who wouldn’t know how to mail in an at-bat if you gave him an envelope and a stamp.

“You know he wants to hit it,” Miller said of Harper, after an impressive three-inning stint Friday. “He’s up there swinging it, obviously.”

Oh yeah. Obviously. So the two of them dug in and went at it, at half past 1 on a Friday afternoon. Can’t beat that for spring training chills and thrills.

Miller fell behind, 2-and-0, then got back to 2-and-2. Harper would then foul off the next four pitches, lay off a 94 mph heater that was slightly high, and foul back yet one more fastball, for the sixth foul ball of the at-bat.

“I was wondering,” the 22-year-old right-hander said, “if he was ever going to put it in play or if he’d finally swing and miss.”

Miller took a deep breath, reared back and fired his fastest pitch of the day -- a 95 mph four-seamer that got Harper’s blood flowing and eyes bulging. It wound up sailing out of the strike zone, but Harper chased it for strike three.

“I was definitely going at him with everything I had,” Miller said, “whether it was a slide step or [a fastball] up out of the zone. I was trying to fool him with what was coming. I was doing everything to try and get him out. He’s a great hitter. He has a lot of talent. It seemed like he was on every fastball, just fouling them straight back. But I finally got him with the high heater.”

Miller is locked in a fascinating competition this spring with Joe Kelly for the fifth spot in the Cardinals’ rotation that opened up when it became clear that Chris Carpenter wasn’t going to be able to pitch. So Cardinals manager Mike Matheny admitted he couldn’t help but bear down extra hard himself on that cool little duel with Harper.

Told afterward that Miller had talked about how much fun he’d had facing The Phenom, Matheny smiled: “I thought it was fun, too. Two guys that are highly touted. Bryce is obviously a very impressive talent. It’s a great opportunity to bring the best out of somebody. It wouldn’t be out of the question to see a young pitcher not perform in a situation like that. But he did a nice job.”

The Cardinals didn’t bring many regulars on the two-hour bus ride to Viera. But Matheny confessed before the game that he was glad he’d brought Shelby Miller along. He was excited, he said, to see how his top pitching prospect -- and Keith Law’s 21st-best prospect in the game -- would fare against the Nationals’ Opening Day lineup.

“I wanted to see Shelby against a tough lineup, to see how he handled himself,” the manager said. “And I thought today was as good as he’s thrown [all spring].”

Turned out Miller was just as hepped up about it.

“A year ago, I was pretty much intimidated by a team like that,” he said. “I was younger, and I had no big league experience. And those guys are obviously very talented. They’ve obviously got a lot of power, and they’re really good at the plate. So [today], my main goal was just to go out there and control the game.”

He left an impression by spinning two shutout innings, and by using that whiff of Harper to wriggle out of trouble in the first inning. But then, in the third, Miller was one out away from putting a third zero on the board until he served up a two-run, two-out triple -- to a fellow named Bryce Harper.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever faced Harper,” Miller said later. “So I got him, and he got me. So I guess it worked out for everybody.”

Right. And that includes the people lucky enough to get to watch a special spring training battle between two guys who could be duking it out in much bigger situations for a long, long time.