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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The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

The thoughts and sounds behind Bryce Harper's jaw-dropping home run

Aaron Nola had no chance at seeing where the ball landed.

Not many did, unless you were a fan leisurely strolling through the center-field concourse and enjoying the amenities of Ashburn Alley at Citizens Bank Park.

"I think it went over the stadium, from where I was sitting," Nola said. "It was a long one."

That's how powerfully Bryce Harper struck his first-inning home run in the Phillies' 2-1 win over the Rockies (see observations). The ball left his bat at 114.1 miles per hour, traveled 466 feet and cleared the brick walls in center field.

It was loud and it made the sellout crowd of 42,354 fans louder.

"I think just as a fan, you just stop and watch the distance of the ball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think we saw a ball go that far to center field all year last year and certainly not this year. That's rare territory. Pretty impressive."

Harper pounced on a first-pitch fastball from Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela. The swing consisted of everything you want to see from Harper, who is 5 for 15 (.333) over his last four games with the homer and three doubles.

He's staying back and driving the ball.

"I think he's beginning to feel it," Kapler said. "I think part of that comes from the work he's been doing with [hitting coach] John Mallee, specifically being a little bit taller on his backside and his hands being a little bit closer to his body."

Harper didn't want to make too much about the distance of his home run. He remembered some advice from a former manager and five-time All-Star.

"Matt Williams always used to tell me, 'It's not how far, it's how many you hit,'" Harper said. "I'm just trying to go about it the right way every single day, doing things out there that help this team win. Just putting the bat to the ball and trying to win games.

Harper has eight home runs and 28 RBIs in 45 games. He has a .371 on-base percentage and is second in baseball to only Mike Trout with 34 walks.

However, he's hitting .230 and was 10 for his last 70 (.143) prior to this 5-for-15 stretch. The Phillies are seeing positive signs, though, from Harper's swing.

"We all believed he was going to break out of what he was in," Nola said. "Guy works hard, works hard at what he does. We've all seen what he's done in his career. Nobody is pressing over him, we know he's the gamer that he is and he does a lot to help the team.

On Saturday, it was a walk, a double and vicious contact on the first pitch he saw.

"I think Harp is best when he's gap to gap," Kapler said. "Every once in a while, he's out in front and pulls the ball down the line. He's at his best when he's hitting high line drives into the gaps, and the ones that he gets just underneath go into the seats or in this case, over everything in center field."

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The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The weather is warming and here comes Phillies' Aaron Nola

The sun was beaming and Aaron Nola was in attack mode, letting the ball rip through the 78-degree heat.

Just like the days back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?

"It's hot as hell down there in the summer," Nola said with a smile about his hometown.

It wasn't quite that hot Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, but Nola looked at home. He looked like himself, the Nola everybody watched in 2018 when he finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Or on second thought …

"Not just the 2018 version, but the best version of the 2018 version," manager Gabe Kapler said.

As the weather turns to warmer temperatures, the man with the most important right arm on the first-place Phillies could be turning into form. It sure appeared that way Saturday as he struck out a career-high-tying 12 batters to pick apart the Rockies in the Phillies' 2-1 win (see observations).

Nola delivered six innings of one-run ball in 106 pitches. He was firing from the get-go, striking out the side in the first inning on 13 pitches. All three punchouts were looking and punctuated by fastballs.

Five days ago from the same mound, Nola needed 38 pitches to finish the first inning against the Brewers. The weather was miserable, a wet 48 degrees at first pitch. He lasted just three frames, throwing 84 pitches in a no-decision.

That performance is now safely buried in the past.

"He was sharp, he was electric, he was running his fastball back over the plate off of the inside," Kapler said. "The curveball was sharp from the outset. When his curveball is good, you see lots of swings and misses, you see empty swings, and that's what was happening today for him."

Nola has a Louisiana coolness to him. The 25-year-old is laid-back, but he's laser-focused.

It's why the Phillies haven't been too worried about his 4.86 ERA entering Saturday or his pinpoint command not being all there through nine starts.

"When I've had conversations with Aaron after the starts that haven't been great, he's so consistent in talking about his process and that being the thing that he can control and the work that he does between starts," Kapler said. "He never comes off of that position. He doesn't cry in his soup, he's not thinking about the last outing that he had, he's already on to the next one. I think the reason that we saw him come out like lightning today is because of the work that he did between starts."

Nola improved to 4-0 with a 4.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 21 walks. He's 10 starts into the 2019 season and is only warming. Still, the Phillies have led the NL East and are just starting to see his best around mid-May.

"That's what I remember when I was with the Nats, facing that," Bryce Harper said. "It's getting hot out there, he's from Baton Rouge, so he likes pitching in hot weather, warm weather."

A quiet competitor like Nola knew Saturday's effort was possible, even with his previous start still fresh.

"It's baseball, anything happens," Nola said. "Last outing, I never threw 80-some pitches in three innings. I've never done it before, but it happens. Things can change really quick. Always got to trust what you're doing and keep working hard through the ups and downs."

That warm weather didn't hurt, either.

"It felt good outside," Nola said. "I got a good sweat on, I like sweating when I'm out there."

The Phillies will like Nola in the summer.

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