Bryce Harper drops the mic in his return to D.C., gives Phillies fans chills

Bryce Harper drops the mic in his return to D.C., gives Phillies fans chills

WASHINGTON — The game was already in hand when Bryce Harper dropped the mic.

Facing former two-time Phillies opening day starter Jeremy Hellickson in the eighth inning Tuesday night, Harper tattooed another baseball, this time going 458 feet out to the second deck in right-center field.

It was Harper's third straight game with a home run and he now owns the two farthest-hit balls in the National League in this young season: 465 feet on Saturday, 458 feet Tuesday night in D.C. in the Phillies' 8-2 win (see observations).

The timing was as storybook as the last six weeks have been for the Phillies. Yes, it's four games into the season. But the potential of this team and the energy Harper has infused is hard to overlook. Scoring eight runs per game isn't sustainable, but the Phillies are too talented an offensive bunch to crash hard back to Earth and stay there.

This was Harper's first game back in D.C. if you hadn't heard. He's no stranger to attention but it was ratcheted up even more than usual on this day. At 3 p.m., Harper spoke to a media room that went about 50-deep. It was a who's who later in the press box: Bob Costas, John Smoltz, Tom Verducci, Buster Olney, Chris Russo, David Aldridge. Everyone wants to catch a piece of Bryce.

Harper's night started quietly, aside from the intense boos he received in the on-deck circle, in the batter's box and any time a ball was hit his way. Early on, the boos outweighed the contingent of 500 Phillies fans in right field and the many more spread throughout the stadium.

"Heard the boos. I just try to remember that I've got 45,000 people in the city of Philadelphia and more that were screaming and watching their TV cheering," he said. "I respect them so much. I understand the game and understand the fan and player interactions. Being able to have them back at home knowing they're cheering and screaming at me through the TV and also having the huge section in right field really fired me up."

Harper struck out swinging in each of his first two plate appearances against three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, causing the only two cheers of the game from Nats fans.

In his third plate appearance, Harper evened the score against Scherzer, doubling down the right-field line.

"He threw me a 2-2 changeup, nasty," Harper recalled. "Then he threw me a 3-2 cutter, also nasty. I knew going up there in that third at-bat that I've got to get a knock because this guy is gonna text me and wear me out."

A few innings later ... well, Harper unloaded.

Even before the home run, Nationals Park had thinned out and Phillies fans had taken over (see story). There were chants of "MVP" and "WE GOT HARPER," clap-clap, clap clap clap.

Standing on second base after the double, Harper looked out at Phillies fans in right-center and pumped his fist at them. When he went out to the field the next half-inning, he did this:

"I was just trying to make sure it was all Philly fans in that section," Harper said.

Through four games, Harper is 6 for 14 (.429) with two doubles, three homers, five RBI and four walks. The Phillies, as a team, have a .391 on-base percentage.

He'll get booed Wednesday, he'll get booed when the Phillies come back here in June, he'll get booed the final week of the season when these teams may be competing for the NL East title, and he'll get booed in D.C. for the majority of this 13-year contract. 

This first game back was new for him, but playing the role of the villain is not.

"I have the city of Philadelphia behind me each and every night," Harper said. "And if I have that, nothing else matters to me."

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Lessons to learn from the ascent of World Series-bound Nationals

Lessons to learn from the ascent of World Series-bound Nationals

The Nationals made quick work of the Cardinals in the NLCS, sweeping them emphatically to break through to the World Series after years of playoff disappointments.

Much has been made, here and in D.C., about the Nationals doing this in the first season after Bryce Harper left them for the Phillies. It quite obviously has nothing to do with Harper's absence ... other than the fact that it opened the door for Washington to replace him with Patrick Corbin. In their first year with their new teams, Corbin equaled or out-produced Harper. 

Can any lessons be learned from the 2019 Nats?

Paid the right pitchers

They zigged when so many other organizations have zagged away from paying premium prices for aces. Pitchers are fragile and so many of the nine-figure contracts for them do not pan out.

The Nationals, though, correctly identified three pitchers worth the money. Max Scherzer will go down as one of the four best pitchers of his era, along with Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw and Jacob deGrom. Stephen Strasburg saved his best work for 2019, leading the NL with 209 innings after averaging 145 the previous four seasons. Strasburg was especially dominant late in the season and in the NL playoffs, pitching so well that it seems like a no-brainer now for him to opt-out this winter of the final three years and $75 million on his contract.

And then there's Corbin, who struck out 12 and won Game 4 against the Cardinals after appearing as both a starter and reliever in the Nationals' preceding playoff series. Corbin was fantastic this season, going 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA, 1.18 WHIP and 238 K's in 202 innings. He signed that six-year, $140 million contract in the offseason. If Washington gets four years close to this from Corbin, that deal is a win.

A key difference between this Nationals playoff run and previous ones was the presence of that third ace in Corbin, and the commitment from Dave Martinez to ride his aces. Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin all started and appeared in relief.

The perfect mid-rotation piece

It helped that Aníbal Sanchez was also awesome when he pitched. Two years in a row, an NL East team has signed Sanchez and two years in a row, he's produced like a No. 2 or 3 starter — 3.39 ERA in 303 innings for the Braves and Nats since 2018. Think about how much farther along the Phillies would be if, say, Jake Arrieta's ERA the last two seasons was closer to 3.39 than 4.26. A useful veteran in Sanchez has been right under their nose.

The Nationals didn't only hit on their big-ticket items like Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin. They also hit on the right mid-tier veterans like Sanchez and doubles-machine Howie Kendrick, the NLCS MVP who has hit .322 in 2½ seasons as a National since being traded by the Phillies at the 2017 deadline.

If you paid attention, you could tell

It was not a trendy pick to go with the Nationals over the Dodgers when the NLDS began, especially in this area where so many fans (rightfully) have enjoyed basking in the Nats' postseason failures.

But something looked and felt different about this year's Nationals team, particularly in September when they were steamrolling opponents after playing months of playoff-type games just to get back in the race. By the end, they had the best and healthiest roster they'd had all season. Daniel Hudson finally gave them a second option to close games or set up for Sean Doolittle. That missing high-leverage option cost Washington game after game in April and May.

Rendon had a career year. Juan Soto solidified himself as an elite hitter you never want to face in a pressure situation. All three of the aces were healthy at the end of the season, which is meaningful because it so rarely happens these days. Scherzer missed seven starts in July and August and didn't go deep into games when he returned, but in the playoffs, he's been the dominant Scherzer. The two teams with the best and healthiest horses — Washington and Houston — are the two teams in the best position right now to win it all.

Learning how to win BS

Teams don't "learn how to win" until they do. Look at the 2015 Royals. Look at the 2008 Phillies. Those were young cores that had been together for several seasons without breaking through. The Phillies were not viewed as the World Series favorite at any point in the '08 season, nor were the Royals in '15.

"Learning how to win" can really just mean pulling out an extra game in October and riding the momentum the way the Nats have. If ace lefty reliever Josh Hader was able to pick up the final outs needed by the Brewers in the wild-card game, the narrative about the Nats would have continued. Instead, it has changed dramatically in the span of two weeks.

Big free agents

The Nationals are going to be a problem for years to come, especially if they can retain superstar free-agent-to-be Anthony Rendon. If Washington loses both Rendon and Strasburg, the NL East opens up. If they retain both, they'll remain likely to win 90-plus games for at least the next three seasons. If they retain one and not the other, the gap between the Nationals, Braves and Phillies will shrink a bit but Washington will still have the most top-end talent.

The Phillies will likely be looking up at the Nats and Braves again next season unless they can add some talent. Adding some talent does not only mean potentially signing a superstar like Rendon or Gerrit Cole. It also means finding the right bench pieces or extra men like Kendrick. It means finally identifying a Sanchez for the rotation rather than a starting pitcher you send out and cross your fingers will get outs. It means having the foresight at the trade deadline to acquire a mid-tier reliever like Hudson who you can ride through high-leverage innings when he's hot.

Matt Klentak didn't inherit the same type of core but he hasn't successfully made those moves as Phillies GM. Mike Rizzo has. The Nationals have drafted better than the Phillies, made better international signings, made better free-agent signings and better trades. That's why they're headed to the World Series while the Phillies are searching for a new manager.

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Nationals poised for trip to World Series ... so fans are celebrating Bryce Harper's absence?

Nationals poised for trip to World Series ... so fans are celebrating Bryce Harper's absence?

The Washington Nationals are now one win away from a trip to the World Series thanks in large part to Stephen Strasburg's admittedly amazing performance on Monday night over the St. Louis Cardinals.

Nationals fans should be stoked about their team. And it's likely, in some ways, that they are. But it's also somewhat bizarre what some Nats fans have chosen to celebrate.

This photo and tweet have been making the rounds this morning and caused a bit of a buzz in Philadelphia.

Tickets - $35, Beer - $10, Bryce Harper watching from home - Priceless

Let's just ignore the fact you can get into a NLCS game for $35 in DC for a second.

Your team is poised to celebrate a league title and you're celebrating the fact that a guy who used to be on your team is... no longer on your team? Okay.

The person in the replies who said it's like going to your own wedding and being most excited about the fact that your ex wasn't invited to the party makes a solid point. It's weird.

I suppose it's worth cutting Nationals fans some slack in this situation because they don't know what it's like to actually make it to the World Series and you've got to learn how to react to things by actually experiencing them.

So, if they end up making it to and losing in the World Series to the New York Yankees or Houston Astros, Nats fans will know how to react to that. They're used to losing in the playoffs.

I wonder what they'll celebrate then?

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