Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bryce Harper, Phillies push Nationals to the brink of elimination

Sep 24. 2020
Bryce Harper rounds the bases on a first-inning home run Wednesday night as Nationals infielders Brock Holt and Luis Garcia look on. Harper had two homers in Philadelphia's victory in Washington at Nationals Park. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
Bryce Harper rounds the bases on a first-inning home run Wednesday night as Nationals infielders Brock Holt and Luis Garcia look on. Harper had two homers in Philadelphia's victory in Washington at Nationals Park. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Katherine Frey
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By The Washington Post · Jesse Dougherty · SPORTS, BASEBALL 

WASHINGTON - There was nothing ceremonious about it, which, in a way, was entirely fitting for the Washington Nationals of 2020. The team that never got to celebrate its 2019 title with fans, never found traction this summer, never did much aside from step on its own feet and fight injuries, lost a game Wednesday and was left to wait for the inevitable elimination to become official. 

And, in the fashion of his short and quiet season, there was no one around to acknowledge the end. No one to jeer a 23-33 record, if they pleased. There was just a tilted score, 12-3 in the Philadelphia Phillies' favor, and then a bit of tortured scoreboard watching. Once the game went final, and Bryce Harper's two homers were the difference, the Nationals would be eliminated by wins for any of the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers or San Francisco. 

When you spend most of the season losing, you lose control of your fate, too. 

Erick Fedde had kept the Nationals floating with seven solid innings. But the three runs against him, including two solo shots for Harper, was enough to bury an offense that was puzzled by Zach Eflin for eight innings. The deficit then ballooned in the eighth when Philadelphia, eliminated by the Nationals last September, plated three more off reliever Kyle McGowin, then six more off Ryner Harper in the ninth. 

The Nationals have been looking ahead for a bit now, ever since Dave Martinez started making notes for next spring training. They hadn't bought or sold at the Aug. 31 trade deadline. They have 14 players on the injured list, with Carter Kieboom joining Stephen Strasburg, Starlin Castro, Adam Eaton, Sean Doolittle and Tanner Rainey, among others, as finished for the season. They have lightly packed it in. 

But beyond the faint chance of advancing - astronomical at best - there are other motives. Harper aside, the Phillies have long been a division rival, once packing Nationals Park with bus loads of screaming fans. So damaging their playoff bid was on the week's agenda. Just listen to what Mike Rizzo told local radio hosts Wednesday morning, responding to what he wanted the club to get from the close of this year. 

"We're going to play hard until the end and see if we can shatter a few dreams," Rizzo, the Nationals' General Manager, said on 106.7 The Fan. "And see if we can be kind of a fly in the ointment for some teams."

On Sunday morning, Fangraphs, a popular analytics website, gave the Phillies an 87% chance of making the postseason. But on Tuesday night, after the Nationals swept a doubleheader, using the unlikely heroics of Austin Voth and Yadiel Hernadnez, that number had dipped to 35. Then Harper and Eflin lugged the Phillies upright. 

In the first, after Fedde retired two batters, Harper walked to the plate while faint boos echoed from a nearby rooftop. It was a far cry from the full-throated, full-stadium receptions he received throughout 2019. But it was still a reminder that, yes, he once played here and may never be totally welcome. 

Fedde got ahead of Harper with a sinker, low and outside. The trouble came when he tried the exact pitch a second time. Harper clocked it out to left-center, into the same seats he'd peppered across six seasons in Washington. The faint boos continued while he jogged the bases. 

This was Fedde's last start of the year, and also one of his best. He set the Phillies down in order in the second, fourth, fifth and seventh. He completed the seventh at 103 pitches, handing the game off with the Nationals trailing 3-1. The Phillies' second run came in the third, once Fedde loaded the bases and the infield couldn't complete a double play. Then it was Harper's second blast, to almost the same spot as the first, that extended the lead in the sixth. 

The Nationals had manufactured a run in the fifth, inching back when Yan Gomes doubled, advanced on a wild pitch and skipped home on Luis García's groundout. Eflin, though, held them down before he yielded a two-run homer to Juan Soto in the ninth. He struck out García swinging to strand two runners in the seventh. He went one-two-three in the eighth, right after the Phillies jumped on McGowin with Andrew McCutchen's homer and a two-run single for Jean Segura. 

In 2019, in a season that ended with a World Series victory, the Nationals were known for miracle comebacks. Last September, they erased a six-run, ninth-inning hole to beat the New York Mets. Last fall, as they blazed through the postseason, they won five elimination games despite trailing in each one. But this team was never that team. Some players left, others opted out, many suffered season-ending injuries to make the current roster - the group trudging through this finish - a shell of Rizzo's vision. 

So there was little pushback once the Phillies separated themselves Wednesday. Soto's late homer could only dent a yawning deficit. The spoilers, that fly in the ointment, could only do so much.

 

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