Bryce Harper gets last laugh in return to D.C. as Phillies best Nationals 8-2

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Nationals fans were elated as Bryce Harper fell victim to Max Scherzer, striking out in each of his first two trips to the plate in his return to Nationals Park, his former home. The Phillies’ $330 million man had the last laugh, however. Harper finished 3-for-5, a triple shy of the cycle, with three RBI. The Phillies beat the Nationals 8-2, remaining baseball’s only unbeaten team at 4-0.

The contingent of Phillies fans that made the trip down to the nation’s capital drowned out boos by chanting, “We got Harper!” after the star’s sixth-inning single and his eighth-inning dinger. Nationals fans, some of whom defaced and destroyed their Harper jerseys, were left with nothing to do but sit in stunned silence.

Phillies starter Zach Eflin out-dueled Scherzer, tossing five shutout innings on 85 pitches, registering nine strikeouts while yielding only three hits a walk. Scherzer logged five innings on 96 pitches, serving up a pair of runs (one earned) on seven hits and a walk with nine strikeouts.

Third baseman and No. 8 hitter Maikel Franco opened the scoring in the second inning, ripping a home run to left field off of Scherzer. In the fourth, catcher Yan Gomes was unable to block a Scherzer pitch in the dirt, which allowed Odúbel Herrera to score the second run. In the sixth, Herrera led off with a double and advanced to third base on a wild pitch by Wander Suero. Suero bounced back, striking out César Hernández. Manager Dave Martinez had Suero intentionally walk Franco to put runners on the corners, then brought in lefty reliever Matt Grace, which forced Phillies manager Gabe Kapler to pinch-hit for Eflin with Nick Williams. Grace struck out Williams, then walked Andrew McCutchen to load the bases for Jean Segura. Segura snuck a ground ball down the right field line, bringing home three runs. Harper came up next and lined a single to left-center, bringing home the sixth run of the game. He advanced to second base on the throw home.

Anthony Rendon put the Nationals on the board in the bottom of the sixth, lifting a two-run home run off of lefty reliever José Álvarez. Harper got those runs back for the Phillies in the top of the eighth, smashing a Jeremy Hellickson fastball into the second deck in right-center, pushing the Phillies’ lead back to six runs at 8-2. The blast was measured at 458 feet.

Adam Morgan worked a scoreless bottom of the eighth for the Phillies to bring the game into the final frame. Vince Velasquez got the ball in the ninth. At this point, the seats at Nationals Park on this cold and rainy night were mostly empty, save for Phillies fans. Velasquez got Ryan Zimmerman to ground out, then struck out Yan Gomes and Brian Dozier to end the game.

Harper got the spotlight, but Franco also deserves to be mentioned. Along with the homer, he was intentionally walked three times and singled. He has reached base five times without aid of a fielding error just twice before in his career.

The Phillies are 4-0 to start the season. The only other time the Phillies started a season 4-0 were 1897 and 1915.

The two clubs will match up on Wednesday afternoon for the finale of the two-game set. They meet again in Philly on Monday for a three-game series. This could be the start of a terrific rivalry in a highly competitive NL East.

The Giants are winning but they’re still gonna sell

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The state of baseball in general, the state of the National League in particular and the state of the San Francisco Giants as a competitor are conspiring to create what seems like at least a mildly absurd situation.

The Giants, a veteran-laden team that, as recently as this past offseason but definitely within the past couple of years, were at least talking about being on a win-now footing, just swept a four-game series, have won five straight games and have won 12 of 14 to pull themselves to within two and a half games of a playoff spot.

Yet, that’s all for temporary show, because they’re about to sell off. At least according to Jeff Passan at ESPN. Giants president Farhan Zaidi tried to push back on that in a radio interview yesterday, denying that the club has foreclosed the possibility of a postseason push, but I’m not really buying that and I don’t think most people are.

On one level it makes sense to ignore the recent surge and forge on with a rebuild. Sure, the Giants are winning but they’re not exactly good. They’re two and a half out of the Wild Card, but there are many teams ahead of them. There’s a lot of reason to think that they’re playing in good fortune right now and that that, rather than finding some extra gear of sustainable better play, is what’s to credit. Hot streaks can happen at any time but the trade deadline only comes once a year. When you have the best starter available in Madison Bumgarner and the best reliever available in Will Smith, you gotta make those deals. That’s what I’d probably do if I ran the Giants and I think that that’s, wisely, what Zaidi will do.

Still, it’s an odd look, less for the Giants specifically than for baseball as a whole. We may in an era of cheap front offices who don’t like to contend if it means spending money, but it’s unfair to paint the Giants with that brush. They’ve spent money and acquired talent and have done whatever they can to extend their 2010-2014 mini-dynasty a few more years and in doing so they’ve made a lot of fans happy. That team has pretty much reached the end and, even in an earlier, more competitive era, they’d not be properly criticized for starting in on a rebuild. Heck, they’d be excused if they had done it a year or two earlier, frankly.

But, because so many teams have punted on improving themselves, these aging Giants are at least superficially competitive. As such, when they do sell off in the coming days, it’ll look to some like they’re waving a white flag or something when they’re not really doing that. I mean, the Rockies and the Pirates, among other teams, should be much better than they are but didn’t seem all that interested in improving, thereby helping the Giants look better, right? It’s less a knock on the Giants for rebuilding when they’re within striking distance of the playoffs than it is on the rest of the league for allowing a team like the Giants to be within striking distance of a playoff spot.

But that’s where we are right now. An insanely competitive Wild Card race from teams that, on the whole, are rather unconcerned with being competitive. What a time to be a baseball fan.