Nationals don’t miss Bryce Harper, and vice-versa

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Harper left the Nationals after seven seasons, joining the division-rival Phillies via free agency

 

After starring with the Washington Nationals for seven seasons, Bryce Harper signed back in spring training as a free agent with the division rival Philadelphia Phillies.

There were many around baseball who believed that this signaled a changing of the guards of sorts. The Phillies, after suffering through six consecutive losing seasons, appeared to be on the rise. The Nationals, winners of four National League East Division crowns during Harper’s first six seasons with the team, appeared possibly on the decline.

Over the 2019 season’s first two months, that was exactly how things were playing out. On May 29, the Phillies sat in first place, 11 games over the .500 mark and with a 3.5 game lead in the division.

On that same day, the Nationals were struggling along at eight games below .500 in fourth place, nine games behind the Phillies.

The two teams had met eight times by that point, splitting the contests at 4-4. Harper had been booed lustily in his first game back in D.C. on April 2, but had silenced those boos with a double and a massive home run.

But as spring turned to summer, the Phillies began to slip and the Nationals began to surge. On Independence Day, Washington moved past the Phillies in the standings for the first time. Two days later they moved into second place again, where the Nats would remain for the rest of the season.

Still, as the Atlanta Braves pulled away at the top of the division for a second straight year, the Phillies hung around in the NL Wildcard race.

Looming on the schedule was a rare five-game series between the Phillies and Nationals in Washington during the final week of the season.

But as that series drew closer, much of the drama was lost. The Phillies just couldn’t sustain a winning streak. The Nationals continued to play well. By the time of the series opener this past Monday, Washington had opened a six-game lead on the Phillies, who had dropped to fourth place in the division.

The Nationals took that opener, then during a split doubleheader on Tuesday, the Nationals swept the Phillies by scores of 4-1 and 6-5. With the first win, the Nats eliminated the Phillies from postseason contention. With the second, Washington clinched their own playoff berth.

Despite getting strong seasons from Harper and fellow newcomer J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies will miss out on the thrill of October baseball for an eight straight year. How did it happen?

There are many reasons. But one direct place to look would be at an area directly affected by Harper signing with the Phillies. That would be into the Nationals outfield. How were the Nats able to cover for the loss of one of the most dynamic young players in the game?

The answer lies in three names: left fielder Juan Soto, center fielder Victor Robles, and right fielder Adam Eaton.

Soto, who finished as the runner-up to Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. in the 2018 NL Rookie of the Year Award voting, has followed that performance up with an even bigger sophomore campaign.

The 20-year-old Soto is slashing .283/.401/.550 with 34 home runs, 69 extra-base hits, 109 RBIs, 107 runs scored, and a dozen stolen bases.

Playing in what is technically his rookie season but his third in the big leagues, the 22-year-old Robles has 17 home runs, 52 extra-base hits, 65 RBIs, 84 runs scored, and 26 steals.

And in right, the 30-year-old Eaton is enjoying a solid bounce-back year after losing most of his first two years with the Nationals to injury. In his eight overall big-league season, Eaton has 15 homers, 47 extra-base hits, 101 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases.

That outfield trio has remained healthy all season for the Nationals, with Soto playing in 143 games to date, Eaton 148, and Robles in a team-high 153 games.

Meanwhile, the 26-year-old Harper has slashed .260/.375/.507 with 34 home runs, 109 RBIs, 69 extra-base hits, 96 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases. His first Phillies season will end up as his best year in the big-leagues, other than his 2015 NL MVP campaign.

As Harper took his position out in right field during the 8th inning of the series penultimate game on Wednesday, the Nationals fans began to heckle him. Nothing new there. Harper knew it would be this way when he signed with the Phillies.

But the attacks this time were not just simple boos or cries of “you suck” or “traitor” or the many other taunts directed at him this year. This time, the Nationals fans brought his newborn son into the taunts.

Harper’s wife, Kayla, turned to Twitter on Thursday morning to display her disgust, calling those Nationals fans “classless“:

Kayla further claimed that these kinds of attacks from Nationals fans, going beyond the pale, have occurred all season. They include messages “wishing my son has autism when he’s born“, for example.

For his part, Harper also acknowledged that things were different during that 8th inning attack.

They were fine all game talking about myself and things like that,” he said per Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “I mean, I get it everywhere I go. It’s nothing new, but the last inning – it’s just not right. It’s just not right.

Harper then went on to address the situation further, mentioning his new home fans in Philadelphia:

“...fans up in Philly that appreciate me as a player and appreciate me as an individual and my family, as well. I owe a lot to those people up there in Philly because they show up for me every single night and they are there to cheer us on and boo us and keep us going as a team and as individuals as well and I’m looking forward to the next 12 years. Can’t wait.

The Nationals and many of their fans clearly do not miss Bryce Harper. Their team is headed back to the playoffs where they will once again take a shot at winning the first world championship in franchise history.

But just as clearly, Bryce Harper does not miss the Washington Nationals or their fans either. He wears the name “Phillies” across the front of his jersey now, and is very happy and proud to do so.

Score round one in 2019 to Washington. But this will be a long fight between these two teams. With Harper at the forefront, expect the Phillies to bloody the Nationals noses in many future rounds.

 

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