Bryce Harper and the Phillies’ sideshow of brazen fans come to Nationals Park tonight.
Expect things to get heated.
The Nationals finally have a real rival. Fourteen years after baseball returned to Washington, the Nats have their version of Redskins-Cowboys.
Washington fans don’t like the Mets, Braves or Marlins, but the games against those NL East foes rarely feel personal.
Nationals versus Phillies feels really personal now, with Harper snubbing Washington by entering free agency and never looking back. Since signing with the Phillies, he never even said goodbye, much less thank the fans who embraced a teenager and cheered him for seven years — even when some of those seasons didn’t deliver on high expectations.
Maybe this is how Phillies fans felt when outfielder Jayson Werth signed with Washington in 2011 after helping Philadelphia win the 2008 World Series? OK, fair enough.
It stings to watch a star leave town for an NL East foe. This isn’t like QB Kirk Cousins joining Minnesota as a free agent a year ago, because the Redskins play the Vikings only every three years or so. The Nats will see Harper 19 times annually, including the next two days.
It would have been less emotional if Harper had gone to Los Angeles or San Francisco, which each play just one series a year in Washington. Instead, he’ll play the Nationals in 12 percent of his regular-season games.
The Nats now have a true adversary, unlike the Battle of the Beltways. The Orioles are the Nats’ regional and TV revenue rival, but those games seem less serious given that the teams play in different leagues. Games against Philadelphia come with playoff implications.
Luckily, the Nationals are 87-63 versus the Phillies since 2011, when Washington became consistently competitive.
Aside from losing the 2014 series 10-9 and tying 9-9 in 2012, Washington has bested Philadelphia in every other season for the past eight years.
It has been a while since Philadelphia manhandled Washington. From 2007-10, Washington was one of baseball’s worst teams and had two 100-loss seasons. Over those four seasons, Philly was 51-21 against the Nats.
The way that these teams are built now, this will be a tight series for years to come.
Harper returns to D.C. tonight with some haughtiness after homering twice in the Phillies’ three-game sweep of the Braves. Nats fans can counter that Harper’s young outfield replacement, Victor Robles, is off to an equally hot start. The 21-year-old is hitting .455 with four extra-base hits.
Maybe fans will briefly applaud Harper before his first at-bat Tuesday night (7:05, MASN2) against Max Scherzer. It would be classy if Harper tipped his cap in response.
But considering that some fans at the Nationals’ first three games put tape over Harper’s name on their jerseys, the boos likely will come quickly.
After all, he’s a rival now.