WASHINGTON -- A way to a bad day might look like this: Bryce Harper returns, homers, helps the Phillies beat on the Nationals. One of the home team’s best players is injured for an extended period. The staff ace is 0-2 after pitching half of the team’s games. The bullpen continued its bumbling ways.
That’s what Tuesday was, a noisy flop and dreary D.C. sports reminder during Harper’s return. The place he left -- still dealing with how it happened, who to blame and moving forward -- booed him with fervor. There was no thanks for the memories, now we’ll try to beat you. No final pat on the back. An oddly timed tribute video ran with the audio accompaniment of dissatisfaction. Harper was booed hard. It only leveled up his night of joy and an evening of eventual dismay for the Nationals.
Pregame, Harper was relaxed, somewhat jovial, happy to answer questions under his black “positive vibes” hat. He hoped to stay here, it didn’t work out, he said. Walking toward the visiting clubhouse was odd for him. Like any employee visiting a former office, wading through something so familiar in a different skin needs time for full adjustment.
And his start pleased those upset with his presence. Max Scherzer struck him out twice during a laborious five-inning outing. The crowd sniped at him those first four innings, hammering him when he emerged from the dugout or settled under a fly ball. It was a bit odd for the District. Among pregame questions was how the crowd would react in a town often tagged as free from the most emphatic elements of sports fandom. They shouted displeasure. Even directed some at Andrew McCutchen for simply having the audacity to lead off the game.
“The crowd was really into it, more so than I thought it was going to be,” Scherzer said.
Then, things changed.
A Scherzer curveball in Harper’s third at-bat caught the bottom of the strike zone. That was bad news. It was supposed to be lower.
Harper looped it into right field for a double. He later singled against Matt Grace to drive in another run, then waved at his teammates in the dugout from second base, a bit he and his new group picked up from Fortnite.
He later delivered the most damning blow: a 458-foot home run off Jeremy Hellickson to right field. Loud, clean, high and without doubt. Harper took a tick to watch it before a hearty flip sent his bat helicoptering toward the Nationals dugout.
“I try not to watch [the bat flips],” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “It’s the way the game’s evolved. Everybody’s got a couple that do it. I try not to watch. I really do.”
With that, his press conference closed. Martinez sounded dejected. His demeanor was more noticeable because it was shift, akin to when a noisy person falls quiet or a silent one raises their voice. Martinez spent last season relentlessly positive in public and often in private. Not Tuesday night following the rain delay, the injury, his ace pitching well but not winning, his bullpen failing time after time.
“Bottom line is we lost one of our good players and we lost,” Martinez said. “We’ve got to come back [Wednesday] and we’ve got to get better. Just got to play better.”
Can four games feel like a long time? Perhaps, when three were lost in not-this-again fashion to division rivals. When the specific offseason fixes have failed. When a visiting Cy Young finalist is ready 14 hours after a loss was weighed down further by separate bad news.
That was not Harper’s night. He won. A big sandwich from the the Italian Store in Arlington opened his return to the city Monday. Dinner at Aqua followed, an early arrival at Nationals Park came Tuesday. He was happy to call Scherzer “nasty” at the end of the evening, explain why he gestured with his hat to the right field crowd and finally take a verbal poke like he tends to do.
“Heard the boos,” Harper said. “Kind of just remembered I have 45,000 people in the city of Philadelphia and more that were screaming at their TV, cheering.”
Those were not the sounds in D.C.
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