ATLANTA - Bryce Harper loves opening day. And Bryce Harper loves to face Julio Teheran. And Bryce Harper really loves to make booing Braves fans eat their words.
All of which culminated in a perfect storm this afternoon when Harper stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of the season to a raucous welcome from the Turner Field crowd and then promptly launched Teheran's 2-2 slider into the right field bleachers for his first homer of 2016.
It was quintessential Harper, savoring the spotlight and doing something dramatic on the big stage. The reigning National League MVP battled his way through an eight-pitch at-bat with Teheran before finally turning on the right-hander's slider and sending the ball flying down the right field line.
Harper gave an emphatic hand-slap to first base coach Davey Lopes as he rounded the bag as the crowd booed the young Nationals star for the third time in about 20 minutes (pregame intros, stepping to the plate, rounding the bases).
This, incredibly, was Harper's fourth career opening day homer. This also was only his fourth career opening day game played. After making his big league debut three weeks into the 2012 season, he homered twice against the Marlins on opening day in 2013 at Nationals Park. He didn't hit the ball out of Citi Field in 2014 but last year took Bartolo Colon deep in D.C.
The all-time record for opening day homers is eight, set by Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn. Harper now is halfway there at age 23.
Harper's mastery of Teheran, meanwhile, continues. He's now 11-for-24 with four homers in his career against the Braves ace.
Harper's latest opening day homer gave the Nationals a quick 1-0 lead, but the man who has terrorized them more than any other hitter in recent history very quickly got the run back for Atlanta. Freddie Freeman engaged in his own battle with Max Scherzer, unable to catch up with two straight fastballs before finally belting the third one deep to center field and over Ben Revere's leap at the fence.
Scherzer had never faced Freeman before, but he quickly found out what the rest of the Nationals pitching staff has known for some time: Nobody wears them out like Freeman. Since 2014, the Braves first baseman is hitting a staggering .439 with a .496 on-base percentage and .693 slugging percentage against the Nats.
Update: It's a solo homer fest here so far, with the two sides trading blows in succession. Daniel Murphy, who you may remember turned into the greatest power hitter of all-time last October, picked up right where he left off by sending a 2-0 pitch from Teheran deep to center in the top of the fourth. Murphy, like Harper, has now homered and walked today.
But before the Nats could celebrate their 2-1 lead, Adonis Garcia hammered a flat, 0-2 slider from Scherzer deep to left in the bottom of the fourth, leaving this game tied. Scherzer has allowed only two hits so far, but each has been a solo homer. Remember how big an issue the home run was for him during his late-summer slump in 2015.
So it's now 2-2 after four, but the greater concern to the Nationals might be Ben Revere, who was replaced in center field by Michael A. Taylor for the bottom of the fourth. A couple of astute viewers noted that Revere appeared to grab his side and take a deep breath during his last at-bat. No official word from the Nationals yet, but that would not be a positive development for a team that dealt with so many injuries last season.
Update II: We're through six innings now in what remains a 2-2 ballgame. Scherzer has allowed only three hits to date, and he's at a comfortable 88 pitches. The problem: He's due up second in the top of the seventh. What to do?
The Nationals have had chances to add some more runs off Teheran, but other than the two solo homers they haven't been able to deliver at the plate. They had a great chance in the bottom of the sixth, with runners on first and second, one out and Jayson Werth up. Some may view Werth batting sixth as something of a demotion for a guy who traditionally has hit higher for this team. But in this lineup, with Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Murphy in front of him, Werth is going to get a whole lot of at-bats with guys on base. Like he just did.
Unfortunately, Werth skied a lazy fly ball to right for the second out. Wilson Ramos followed suit, and so the Nats stranded a pair of bases, leaving this a 2-2 game heading to the seventh with the Braves now turning to their bullpen.
Update III: Well, everyone wondered how the Nationals' new-look bullpen would perform in tight situations late in ballgames. That first group didn't exactly pass its first test. Thankfully, the Braves bullpen followed suit, leaving this game tied and heading to extra innings.
Felipe Rivero and Shawn Kelley combined to give up the go-ahead run to the Braves in the bottom of the eighth via a single, two walks and a hit batter.
Handed the ball in a time game, Rivero proceeded to issue a one-out walk to pinch-hitter Jeff Francoeur, then allowed a single to Ender Inciarte. Rivero bounced back to get Erick Aybar, but then his 3-2 fastball caught Freeman in the arm, loading the bases with two outs.
Baker turned to Kelley, one of the Nationals' key offseason acquisitions. The veteran right-hander, though, never came close to finding the strike zone: All four of his offerings to Garcia were low, the last one scooting to the backstop as the go-ahead run crossed the plate.
With one last shot in the ninth, the Nats managed to get Jason Grilli to blow his save opportunity. Werth walked, Ramos poked a single through the vacant right side of the infield and Espinosa beat out a bunt, loading the bases with nobody out. Pinch-hitter Stephen Drew struck out looking at a slider, but Taylor lofted a fly ball to shallow center field, leaving third base coach Bob Henley to send Werth home.
Ender Inciarte's throw beat Werth to the plate, but A.J. Pierzynski couldn't hold onto the ball as Werth slid in. That left the game tied, though Werth looked a bit gimpy as he got to his feet and trotted to the dugout.
Blake Treinen pitched around a leadoff walk in the bottom of the ninth, getting a nice double play from Espinosa at shortstop to send this one into extras.
Update IV: It wasn't the prettiest ballgame ever played, but it sure was entertaining. Especially for the Nationals, who pulled out a 4-3 victory in 10 innings.
After tying the game in the ninth, they plated the winning run in the 10th thanks to Murphy's opposite-field double off left-hander Eric O'Flaherty. That easily scored Zimmerman, who had reached second thanks to a particularly egregious throwing error by Gordon Beckham.
Jonathan Papelbon entered for the bottom of the 10th and finished this one off, notching his first save of the season and helping turn what might have been an unsightly season-opening loss for the Nats into an uplifting victory.