If Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer walked into the same bar — Scherzer kicking through the swinging doors in front, Harper ushered in through the kitchen and shown to a private table in back — they would be destined to arm wrestle. For four years, they shared a clubhouse and a common goal, if not an ethos. Each is a central casting alpha male, and it can be hard to have two of those with desks — or, in this case, locker stalls — that face each other, perhaps a dozen paces across the carpet in the office.
What baseball needs, from April to October, is anything that amounts to appointment television. Bryce, Max. Come over here. Let’s do this, say, five times this summer. Agreed? Perfect. Now, elbows on the bar.
Nationals Park, on Tuesday night, hosted exactly that, postseason-worthy theater on a frigid spring evening. Scherzer, a Hall of Famer to be, against Harper, newly cast as a villain in the ballpark where he spent his first seven seasons, provides us two of the sport’s great characters 60 feet, six inches apart.
“The crowd was really into it,” Scherzer said, “more so than I thought it would be.”
“It’s an emotional day,” Harper said. “You’re coming back here where you spent seven seasons of your career. You try to just go about it the right way and play the game and not worry about your surroundings — knowing that you got to face Max Scherzer.”
That Harper made mincemeat of a rickety Nationals bullpen — including an epic bat flip after a towering eighth-inning homer off Jeremy Hellickson that finished a 3-for-5 night — is important, because those guys will have to get him out at some point this summer, too. But Harper vs. Scherzer is why you purchase the ticket — and they sold 35,920 in lousy conditions for this.
“There’s going to be a lot of investment in that moment,” Phillies Manager Gabe Kapler said before the game.
Uh, yeah. That would be $540 million of investment — $330 million by Harper’s Phillies, the remaining $210 million by Scherzer’s Nats.
Harper’s departure for Philadelphia left Washington with all sorts of emotions, the dominant apparently to boo the kid you used to cheer in what became an 8-2 Phillies’ romp. But his return to Nationals Park was inarguably made juicier by Scherzer’s insistence on taking the ball Tuesday night.
This easily could have been Aníbal Sánchez’s debut in a Washington uniform, which would have been fine. But there’s no meaningful history between Sánchez, the former Atlanta Brave, and Harper. Scherzer and Harper have Harper’s MVP season of 2015 and Scherzer’s Cy Youngs in 2016 and ’17. They have a pair of division titles and a pair of crippling Game 5 losses in the division series.
And they have their own standards, which is to be the best at what they do. Scherzer has an argument that he is. Harper has to fight to get back there.
Scherzer said he wanted to take the ball on regular four days’ rest. On a date that was circled on calendars Feb. 28, when Harper agreed to his 13-year deal with the Phillies, what more would you want?
“You always want to go up against the best,” Harper said.
So what do you call Round 1? A blowout for the Phillies and Harper, but a draw between Bryce and Max? With the boos pouring down on Harper, Scherzer threw him a laughably good 2-2 change-up. “Nasty,” Harper said, and he swung through it for a strikeout. In the third, Scherzer went to a full-count cutter down and in. “Absolutely nasty,” was Harper’s assessment, and he swung through that as well. They had never faced each other. For a moment, it looked as if Max might own him.
“He’s a great hitter,” Scherzer said. “So you have to make great pitches to get him out.”
In the fifth, Scherzer didn’t make a great pitch — a curveball he left a bit up. Harper ripped it to right for a double. Scherzer was on his way to the showers after the inning. Harper was on his way to owning the night.
The most anticipated aspect of the evening was, for sure, how Harper would be received by the fans who raised him. That’s out of the way: Nationals fans are going to boo him. That vitriol, whatever its origins, at some point will be replaced by the baseball. And while an at-bat for Harper at Nationals Park against, say, Sánchez or Patrick Corbin or Hellickson — poor, poor Hellickson — might soon seem normal, Scherzer and Harper will be worth recording. Now, and a year from now.
“They’re two of the most exciting players to watch in baseball,” Kapler said, “and seeing that clash, you can’t help but take a deep breath and say, ‘I’m really lucky to be witnessing this.’ ”
Nats fans, right now, can’t be feeling lucky to witness this brand of baseball, four sloppy games that have produced just one win. Scherzer is enough of a persona that he shouldn’t — and won’t — stand for this. He has now lost both of his starts, and both times was victimized by hard-to-watch fundamentals behind him. Might it eat at him that Harper’s Phillies are the only remaining unbeaten team in baseball, and they’re the bunch playing spirited, clean ball in front of a revitalized — and mobile — fan base?
The hostile reception — even to a pregame tribute video — didn’t present a forum in which Harper could salute his old supporters. But he had busloads of Philadelphia fans in the right field stands behind him.
“I had 500 Phillies fans that I was able to tip my cap to,” Harper said. “I was pumped about that.”
Scherzer was out of the game by the time Harper came up for the fourth time, this time against vulnerable Nats lefty Matt Grace. Harper singled through the left side, driving in the last of four Phillies runs that blew open the game in the sixth. That development made Nationals Park kind of crumble. The invading Phillies fans chanted both “MVP! MVP!” and “We’ve got Harper! We’ve got Harper!”
And when Harper returned to right field for the bottom of the inning, he bent at the waist, removed his cap and performed a bizarre bow for the Phillie fans — sorry, Phans? — who have embraced him in this early going. They roared back at him. He is hitting .429 with three homers in four games. He is torturing his old team, with another chance Wednesday and three more next week. Phillies fans feel as comfortable at Nationals Park as they did in, say, 2009.
“They deserved that,” Harper said. “It’s Philadelphia. Let’s go.”
Somewhere, back in the clubhouse, Max Scherzer had to be seething, wondering how he could prevent this from happening again.
“It’ll be fun to compete against him,” Scherzer said.
Fun, with a decided edge. We don’t yet know when Max vs. Bryce, Chapter II will come. We just know we should absolutely show up.