And thus, with five games remaining, an odd transition ended. This season, in some sense, was always going to be about what the Nationals did without Harper and what the Philadelphia Phillies did with him. That dance is over. The Nationals of Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Trea Turner have at least a one-night date in the postseason and maybe more. The Phillies of Bryce Harper do not.
“They have a good team,” Harper said after he took his seat in front of his locker, too late to hear the analysis about his departure.
Admit it, Nationals fans. There was a part of you — and for some, not a small part — who relished that the delirium at Nationals Park late Tuesday night came with Harper in the house, watching it closely. There were memes. There were tweets. And that’s fine because it’s sports, and where would sports be without a little animosity among (former) friends? Never mind that Harper pinch-hit late in that game and sent a baseball from old nemesis Hunter Strickland to the moon.
“At the end of the day,” Harper said after the game, “they’re still doing what they’re doing over there, and we’re going to get on a bus to go home.”
What Tuesday provided was some finality on Harper’s seven-year stint in Washington. Yeah, he has worn a Phillies uniform since March, when he signed that 13-year, $330 million deal to remain in the National League East and face his old team 19 times a year. But he spoke wistfully of Washington in spring training, as if he were still trying to figure out what went wrong with his career path.
“I love Philly,” he said. “I absolutely love it.”
He is a Phillie, then, not just in uniform but in heart. On Wednesday night, with the Phillies eliminated and the Nationals trying to figure out how to navigate the territory between here and next week’s wild-card game, he played in his 153rd game with his new team, a 5-2 loss to the Nationals. He has 34 home runs. He has driven in 109 runs, a career high. He needs one more walk to reach 100, four more runs to reach 100.
Those are stats that would traditionally be seen as pillars of an exceptional season. Harper knows how all that will be viewed.
“People are going to look at the average,” he said, “like they always do.”
His average is .260, pedestrian. But batting average is a hollow stat. More important, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage is .882 — not bad but not Bryce at his best. It ranked 40th in baseball entering Wednesday, far off his MVP year of 2015 (1.109) or even the injury-shortened 2017 (1.008).
His self-assessment: “It’s been good. I’ll take this year.”
The Nats fans who booed him this week will take theirs, too. The stats MLB Network cited Wednesday can’t be linked to Harper’s departure. But they’re also interesting. This year’s Nationals have bettered last year’s across the board: runs per game (5.3 to 4.8), on-base percentage (.340 to .335), slugging percentage (.452 to .419). You name it.
What matters more to Harper — and, again, to the fans here who booed him — was the relative success of the teams in the standings. No team entered the season with more anticipation than the Phillies — and not only because they added Harper but because they traded for catcher J.T. Realmuto and signed outfielder Andrew McCutchen and closer David Robertson, spending hundreds of millions of dollars of owner John Middleton’s money.
And by Wednesday, the Phillies were playing out the string and the Nats were prepping for more. That seems stark. Harper said it rolls off him.
“I said that from the beginning: It takes time to build something great,” Harper said. “I’ve put my faith in Mr. Middleton and [General Manager Matt] Klentak and what they think we’re going to be as an organization. Some things went south this year. It happens. That’s part of the game. Injuries, all that. But we’re going to have a big offseason. I’m excited to see what we can do as a team, as an organization.”
But it had to — it just had to — be weird watching the Nationals assemble on the infield Tuesday night, waiting for the final out of the Chicago Cubs’ loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, waiting to celebrate their first postseason berth without Harper.
“No, not at all,” Harper said. “They should be where they are. They have three of the best pitchers in all of baseball. They have three No. 1s. They’ve got one of the best lineups as well. I’m happy for the guys over there.”
Throughout his final year in Washington, Harper was the most consistent and vocal voice backing Manager Davey Martinez. “Happy for Davey,” he said.
And then, the interesting part.
“I’m excited for Rendon and what he’s done this year,” Harper said. “I hope he has a huge postseason and gets what he deserves as a free agent — wherever that may be.”
There’s the Bryce with a little casual edge. Rendon has been the Nationals’ best player, a legitimate MVP candidate. Thus far, the Nationals have been unable to re-sign him, and free agency is just a month away. Harper knows how badly he wanted to come back to Washington and how he couldn’t get it done. The Nationals have publicly said they want Rendon back and, privately, have pursued him. “Wherever that may be,” that’s Harper’s way of saying, “I know how this goes.”
So the lines are now drawn. In spring training, it was all new. He didn’t know where he would live. Now he has a home in southern New Jersey. “Love my neighborhood,” he said. In Washington, he always seemed the teenager who came up, hair on fire. Now he is, of all things, a dad; his wife, Kayla, gave birth to their son, Krew, last month. Part of this week was spent holding Krew in the bowels of Nationals Park, introducing him to current and former teammates.
“He’s a little champ, man,” Harper said. “I can’t stop looking at him when I see him. I can’t stop holding him. It’s just a joy.”
When Harper came up in the first, Nationals Park mustered what it could for emotion — throaty and loud boos. Maybe next year, that will end, too. The transition is over. Harper is a Phillie for life. His old team is in the playoffs, and his new one will go home. That mattered in 2019, the first year of the rest of his life. It will matter less and less every season going forward.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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