DENVER - The Nationals wrapped up their 14th season of baseball in the District this afternoon. That this particular season, already a disappointment, ended with a 12-0 pasting at the hands of a Rockies club that now heads to Los Angeles for a Monday tiebreaker game to decide the National League West didn’t mean much in the larger picture.
No, what meant the most was the question that loomed over this game at Coors Field and really loomed over the entire 2018 season. Was this Bryce Harper’s final game as a National?
The club’s history can now be broken into two eras, each lasting seven years. There were the pre-Harper Nationals, the team that never posted a winning season from 2005-11 and was mostly an afterthought around the rest of baseball. And now there have been the Harper Nationals, the team that posted seven consecutive winning seasons from 2012-18, won four division titles and consistently has been a significant part of the baseball conversation.
But when Harper was left stranded on second base in the top of the ninth of this blowout loss, the Nats entered a new and uncertain phase of their history. Are they now headed for the Post-Harper Era, one that may very well still include lots of success? Or are they headed for Part Two of the Harper Era, one that if nothing else will guarantee the presence of an iconic player who will come to represent the organization for decades, good or bad?
“I don’t know,” the man in the middle of it all said. “So nobody knows.”
After months (really, years) of speculation, the time has now arrived for the decision to be made. The Nationals would love for it to be made sooner rather than later - two sources said members of the front office, including ownership, are preparing to meet with Harper and agent Scott Boras in Las Vegas and make their pitch before he officially becomes a free agent after the World Series, though a third source said no meetings have been scheduled yet - but they can’t control the eventual timing of the decision.
Harper has repeatedly said in recent weeks he would like to return to the Nationals, if he’s in their plans. Asked before today’s game if the 25-year-old slugger is in their plans, general manager Mike Rizzo immediately replied: “Of course he’s in our plans.”
“He’s a guy we would love to have,” Rizzo continued. “He’s a part of our family. He’s a big part of this roster, performance-wise. Like I’ve always said, with these type of deals, you’re not betting on the baseball player, you’re betting on the person. He’s a person we’d like to have with us.”
Is any of this a sign the two sides actually could strike a deal, maybe ever before any other club is allowed to make an offer? Or is this just posturing by both sides, an attempt to make sure neither gets blamed if Harper opens the 2019 season wearing someone else’s uniform?
“If I’m back with D.C., or back with the Nationals, that’s where I’ll be,” Harper said. “If I’m not, I’m not afraid of change.”
If this was Harper’s final game as a National, it was not a particularly memorable one. The Rockies, trying to clinch their first division title but at least force a Monday tiebreaker, burst out to a quick 4-0 lead behind homers from Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon off Erick Fedde, given the starting assignment instead of Max Scherzer. They extended the lead to 7-0 when David Dahl belted a three-run homer off Tim Collins in the fifth. They piled on with back-to-back homers by Arenado and Trevor Story off Austin Voth in the seventh to make it 9-0.
And when Blackmon doubled home another run in the eighth to complete the ninth cycle in Rockies history - the first ever allowed by the Nationals - the sellout crowd of 47,833 here was in full celebration mode. By that point, with the Dodgers up two touchdowns in San Francisco, fans began chanting “Beat L.A.!”
“It’s tough,” said first-year manager Davey Martinez, who inherited a 95-win team and wound up 82-80, eight games back in the NL East. “You don’t ever want to lose, but I thought Voth threw the ball really well. He gave up the two homers, but I thought he threw the ball well. Fedde just made a couple mistakes, but other than that, he threw the ball OK. It stinks losing. We never want to lose.”
Harper could only watch it unfold from his position in right field and wait to see if he would get another at-bat. He had grounded into a double play in the first, doubled to left-center in the fourth and then slumped back to the dugout after getting rung up by Hunter Wendelstedt after back-to-back borderline pitches on the outside corner in the seventh.
At that moment, he wasn’t guaranteed another chance to bat. His teammates, though, mustered up just enough offense to ensure Harper would hit one more time.
He stepped up with one out and nobody on in the ninth, worked the count to 2-2 against Chris Rusin, then ripped the lefty’s curveball down the right field line for his second double of the day, his 34th of the season. He finished with 34 homers, 100 RBIs, 103 runs, a .249 batting average, an .889 OPS and no playoff appearance.
“He handled it really well,” Martinez said. “Obviously, he wanted to play, and he wanted to finish it out. That’s a testament to who he is. He didn’t want to get taken out of the game. He wanted to stay in the whole game. If it is his last at-bat, he ended off on a good one. Hopefully, it’s not.”
Thus concluded Harper’s 927th game as a member of the Nationals. It’s the same number of games Ian Desmond, who was in the park today at first base for the Rockies, played for the Nats from 2009-15. Only Ryan Zimmerman, sitting on the bench today with a franchise-record 1,637 career games, has ever donned the curly W cap more times.
Will there be a 928th game for Harper in Washington? The two sides are now officially on the clock.
“As a team, I think it’s a bright future, of course,” he said. “We’ve got a chance to win a World Series, then I’m all about it.”