WASHINGTON -- Bryce Harper was ruled safe Sunday night, though it’s unclear if his feet touched the plate as he floated by. His second home run of the season landed in the right-field stands a minute prior -- a high, looping shot that sent Philadelphia fans to their feet and teammates out of the dugout. Harper has multiple celebrations and handshakes with his new group -- a high arm smash, backslap and handshake for Rhys Hoskins, a dip and point a la Usain Bolt for Maikel Franco, a left-right, chest pound with Andrew McCutchen. He went through them all with glee. The Phillies are baseball’s only 3-0 team.
A few hours earlier in the District, Trea Turner rescued the Nationals. His walk-off home run cleaned the slop produced late by a bullpen already taking on water. Closer Sean Doolittle -- needed in the eighth inning of game three while it was managed October-style -- confirmed it was all right to use the term “bailout” when referencing Turner’s second home run of the game. The Nationals won, 6-5, narrowly avoiding an 0-3 start via a sweep from division rival New York Mets. Turner was asked postgame how tough it would have been to lose.
“I don’t know -- we won,” he responded.
Against this backdrop, honeymoon phase versus moving on, Harper and the Phillies board a D.C.-bound train Monday night to start a two-game series Tuesday at Nationals Park. Max Scherzer is pitching the opener. Harper will be part of a press conference and every detail of the game from there. How many of the seats will Phillies fans occupy? Will he say thank you in some way? Will the Nationals thank him? Will he be booed? Cheered?
“It's going to be fun,” Scherzer said. “Look, NL East is loaded. Every single game's going to matter and this one is just as important. That's what makes this fun. They have a great team over there. And it's going to take everything out of our play to try to beat them. Nothing's new.”
The first small dose of life without Harper has one clear outcome: The spotlight has dimmed in Washington. The Nationals’ opener featured a delectable pitching matchup between Scherzer and Jacob deGrom with a 1:05 p.m. start time. Also beginning at 1:05 p.m. was the opener between the lagging Orioles and omnipotent Yankees. ESPN opted to carry the Yankees’ game, Cy Young winners be damned.
The veterans’ clubhouse corner in West Palm Beach, Florida received a reduction in traffic. Without Harper, reporters did not often wander into the tight section. Out-of-town reporters stopped by even less frequently. Players lined up in the back operated more often in solitude, which is the preference for some. They noticed Harper not being around and conceded the accompanying quiet was slightly odd.
“I’d say a little bit because the last three years we’ve been this close to each other in the locker room,” Anthony Rendon told NBC Sports Washington at the end of spring training. “Definitely media was always over here. So, that is different. That’s been a good thing for me. ... In that sense, it’s, yeah, been kind of weird.”
Despite the Mets being in town for the opening series, New York writers didn’t visit the Nationals clubhouse on a stakeout. What was Harper’s locker now belongs to Howie Kendrick. No interviews were conducted in the space over the weekend because Kendrick remains rehabilitating his hamstring in Florida. The change closed a fun cat-and-mouse game. Whenever a New York team was at Nationals Park, Harper would pick specific times to enter the clubhouse while it was open to reporters. He often showed for one pregame interview opportunity during a three-game series -- if he showed at all. That was it.
His absence has changed the park, too. Harper has been removed from the side of a truck sitting near the home plate entrance and adorned with multiple players. A giant poster of him beyond center field was pulled down. Patrick Corbin, Sean Doolittle, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg fill those slots now.
And the lineup is different. Manager Davey Martinez has just two left-handed hitters in the daily nine. Juan Soto is hitting fourth as opposed to third because Martinez wants to push Soto away from the other left-handed hitter, leadoff man Adam Eaton. The prospect of Harper coming up late -- or at all -- has evaporated. Part of the lineup’s perceived menace went along with it.
Two former major-league players discussed the change in feel during an elevator ride. They thought the Nationals’ lineup much more manageable, especially when it came to matching up late. This puts all the more emphasis on Soto.
“Obviously, making a 25-man roster is out of our control,” Rendon said. “We’re just basically pawns of wherever they put us. So I think we have to trust the front office is doing the best that they can and put us in the best situation to win, whether it be now or for down the road.
“I think they’ve done an awesome job so far, and we’ve got that 19-year-old guy. Obviously, he’s going to be our power bat from the left side -- [Matt] Adams, too. Not saying we’re not going to miss Harp. He’s once-in-a-lifetime type player out here, but it’s a business, and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. So, wish him all the best.”
Pieces in Washington and around Harper will change during the length of his 13-year contract. The geography of the situation will not. Harper is in the division for a decade-plus, a couple hours up I-95 on the team Nationals fans dislike the most. Harper being entrenched in Philadelphia means up to 247 games against Washington and at least three years of tussles with Scherzer.
Sunday, Scherzer veered from being too specific about Harper’s return. Asked what kind of fan response he expected, Scherzer demurred, saying that was up to the crowd. He said watching a former teammate for years -- and vice versa -- made familiarity a wash for both sides when they face each other. Then he was reminded of how long this is going to play out between the two of them.
“That's kind of the way I see it,” Scherzer said. “He's signed here forever, basically. Or at least forever in my career. We're going to be facing each other a lot. This is just the first. Whatever happens on Tuesday, it's going to be the course of a career of facing him. This is just round one.”
The bell rings at 7:05 p.m.
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