It will happen 19 times this season, and 19 times the season after that, and the one after that, and then for another decade. So there could come a point — maybe months from now, maybe years — when it will be normal for Bryce Harper to play in Nationals Park, to jog to right field for the bottom of the first inning instead of the top, to visit the city that clung to him as it became a baseball town, and he became a star.
But it won’t be normal at 7:05 p.m. Tuesday. First reunions never are.
“It will be weird to see Bryce because we’ve only seen him in a Nats uniform,” said Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals’ ace. “So . . . obviously that’s weird.”
The Nationals have to say, at least publicly, that this is just another game. One of 162. A first crack at a division rival that got a whole lot better this offseason. Yet that can only be so true. Harper spent seven seasons in Washington, growing from can’t-miss prospect to franchise cornerstone, before signing a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies early in spring training. The Nationals made their offer in late September — 10 years, $300 million, a lot of deferred money — and then focused on building a contender without him, adding prize left-handed starter Patrick Corbin, a veteran second baseman, a pair of catchers, a pair of back-of-the-rotation starters, a pair of right-handed relievers, a lefty specialist and a left-handed bat to come off the bench.
The Phillies, meanwhile, signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson, and they traded for shortstop Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto. Then they landed Harper. Then everyone circled April 2 on their calendars because it would be Harper’s first game against his old team. Then they found out, this weekend, that Harper would face Scherzer right away.
“He’s signed here forever, basically. Or at least forever in my career,” Scherzer said Sunday. "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 1.”
Harper spent the weekend crushing balls at Citizens Bank Park, his new home, while the Nationals sputtered through a series before salvaging the final game. Harper is locked in, with two towering home runs in three games, and the Phillies’ lineup is pulsing around him. Philadelphia fans were chanting “MVP!” by the end of a 5-1 win over the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night. So they’ve enjoyed getting to know each other.
But Scherzer will be the Phillies’ toughest test of the young season. He is one of baseball’s best pitchers, even at 34, and is coming off a 12-strikeout Opening Day outing against the New York Mets. He is only starting Tuesday because of how the Nationals are shifting their rotation to begin the year. They are using four starters, with Jeremy Hellickson currently in the bullpen, so Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg can remain on regular rest between outings. That means Scherzer probably will appear in two of the Nationals’ first four games, three of the first eight and four of the first 13. The first three starts will come against the Mets, Phillies and Mets again, critical games in what should be a tight NL East race from start to finish.
And it also, coincidentally, lined up Scherzer to welcome Harper back to D.C. Scherzer had a close look at Harper over the past three seasons. But he was quick to note that Harper regularly got to watch him, too.
“It goes both ways,” Scherzer said. "There’s a saying: Good pitching beats good hitting, and vice versa.”
It’s not just Scherzer who will be responsible for Harper — and Realmuto and McCutchen and Rhys Hoskins and so on. Aníbal Sánchez will face the Phillies on Wednesday in his Nationals debut. Tony Sipp, the team’s new matchup lefty, could see Harper in a high-leverage spot. So could Matt Grace. Sean Doolittle, Washington’s left-handed closer, may just meet his former teammate with a game on the line.
Doolittle has a trick for blocking out who’s at the plate: Never make eye contact with hitters. He has in the past, though he doesn’t remember when, and he described it as “really awkward.” He had to step off the rubber, the hitter stepped out of the box, and they had to recover and reset before the at-bat resumed. He will be mindful of the scouting report should Harper step in to face him. But he’ll otherwise see it as any other task. Or at least try to.
“You know who it is. But you’re putting all that to the side and trying to remind yourself what the game plan is and what you’re looking to do against him,” Doolittle said. "The ultimate goal is to have a mind-set where it doesn’t matter who’s in the box. You’re just executing your pitches and blocking all that stuff out. Sometimes that’s tough to do. But that’s the goal.”
There is much to debate before Scherzer takes the mound and the first pitch is thrown Tuesday night: Should Nationals fans boo Harper? Should they cheer? Will it even be heard over all those who traveled down Interstate 95 from Philadelphia?
But there is a certainty to it, one Harper and the Nationals and his new team cannot avoid. This is only a beginning. Harper is probably a Phillie for life. And so the Nationals’ life, now and well into the future, includes seeing him all the time.
“Hopefully the fans go crazy for him because he did a lot for us and he had a good career here,” Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “Now we got to get him out. So it begins, I guess.”