Highlighting the final years (potentially) of Bryce Harper's career with the Nationals

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Highlighting the final years (potentially) of Bryce Harper's career with the Nationals originally appeared on nbcsportswashington.com

We've written plenty of times about the potential end of Bryce Harper's Washington Nationals career. We've examined what were maybe his final days at Nationals Park, started discussing where he might end up, and taken a look at the journey that brought us to this point.

Over the course of a few posts, we're taking a deeper look at some of the highlights of the last half-decade in Nats history through the lens of Harper. We're breaking this up into a three-act series, but who knows? If he ends up re-signing in D.C., we may end up looking back on 2012-18 altogether as just the first act of a storied career in the nation's capital.

Whether or not he comes back to Washington, it's clear that we're entering a new era in both D.C. baseball and Harper's career, so it's a natural point to take a step back and review where we've come from so far. We already highlighted his early  and middle years.

Act III: The (Maybe) End? (2017-2018)

The hype surrounding baseball's 2018 free agency began years ago, especially when it came to Manny Machado, the late Jose Fernandez, and of course, Bryce Harper. Everyone had 2018 circled on their calendars for a while, knowing that teams like the Cubs and Yankees were out their waiting, biding their time until it was time to wage a bidding war. The realization that Harper's time in D.C. has become more fully formed in fans' eyes in the last two seasons, which colors the lens by which we examine Harper's most recent (and potentially final) two years with the Nationals.

Another Record-Breaking Opening Day

Harper has never shied away from the big moment, and with the exception of games with postseason ramifications, there's no bigger game than Opening Day. In 2017, Harper once again went yard in game number one, and this time, it was historic.

Harper's blast against the Marlins was the fifth Opening Day home run of his career, a new record for any player under 25. It makes sense that this would be a difficult record to achieve, as players only have one chance at an Opening Day home run each year, and most don't get their first chance as 20-year olds. Harper hitting five home runs in his first five Opening Days is secretly one of the most impressive stats from his young career.

It wouldn't be the only record he set in April 2017. On the final day of the month, Harper scored four runs, pushing his total to 32 on the young season. It was the first time in Major League history a player had scored at least 30 runs in baseball's opening month. The key to his newest record? Getting on base. Harper's on-base percentage that month was a whopping .510. When you're on baseball literally more often than not, it makes scoring runs a whole lot easier.

Another Brawl

In May 2017, Harper once again found himself in the middle a brawl he didn't want. A fight he wasn't interested in having, but was forced upon him by a middling reliever. This time, at least, the reliever wasn't on his own team.

In 2014, Harper had hit two titanic blasts off of Giants reliever Hunter Strickland. Harper enjoyed one of them a bit too long for Strickland's liking, and because the unwritten rules of baseball are essentially just an excuse for grown men to throw temper tantrums in the form of hard baseballs, Strickland decided to exact his revenge on Harper nearly three years later, just for having the gall to enjoy a perfectly enjoyable home run.

Yes, it's as ridiculous as it sounds.

Harper's teammates were rightfully incensed at both Strickland's actions and how long he held his grudge. It's one thing to throw at someone later in the same game. It's still a stupid thing, but it's at least a thing. Waiting this long though? That's a bit of a stretch.

The Nats slugger reacted the same way most of us would if someone threw a weapon at us at 98 mph. He stared, charged the mound, threw his helmet, and got in a few good punches before being pulled apart. Harper was yet again the unintentional instigator, and unfortunately Major League Baseball decided he needed to be punished simply for defending himself.

Eventually, Harper ended up suspended for three games, which in the grand scheme of things is not much. It did, however give fans of opposing teams more ammo with which to accuse Harper of being cocky and brazen, no matter how clearly false those statements may be.

Another All-Star Game

As mentioned above, Harper's 2017 got off to a torrid start. After April, it looked like he was well on his way to a second MVP. Instead, he fell off in May and June, hitting "just" .256 and .287, respectively, to go along with nine combined home runs over the span of two months.

Now, these numbers certainly aren't terrible. Many hitters would be happy to have them. Overall, it was a strong first half for Harper, though given the expectations it felt like a disappointment. He had dealt with injuries and inconsistency after April, and fans who had hoped for a 2015 2.0 season were let down.

And yet, despite his "down" season (extreme emphasis on the quotes around the word "down"), Harper was the number one leading vote getter for the 2017 MLB All-Star Game in Miami. His 4,630,306 votes represented Harper's status among the faces of the sport.

Being named an All-Star is one thing. In fact, it takes fairly extreme circumstances for popular former MVPs to not be named to the team. But leading the entire league in fan balloting isn't something that can be done by name alone. It wasn't his best season. It wasn't his most prolific. But it was a coronation of sorts, symbolically showing that he was now a name bigger than his stat line.

Another Postseason Disappointment

The Nationals won the NL East by a jaw-dropping 20 games in 2017. Seriously. It was only a year ago, but it's still hard to believe just how thoroughly they dominated their competition.

Given their regular season success, expectations were high as the Nats tried once again to break the D.C. sports curse and break though the first round of the postseason. They found themselves facing the Cubs, who of course had broken their own curse the year before.

Harper had missed a large chunk of the second half with an injury, but he returned at the end of September, and most fans were ready for him to take the team to the next level.

Instead, Harper hit just .211, with a .304 on-base percentage. His struggles at the plate were matched by most of his teammates, and the series went to Game 5. Harper went 2-for-4 with a walk in the back-and-forth affair, but with two outs in the ninth and the Nats trailing 9-8, he came to the plate against Cubs closer Wade Davis. Who else could fans have wanted in a do-or-die situation than their beloved slugger? The man who was born in the spotlight, and craved dramatic moments such as these? With everyone in the stands intently hanging on to every pitch, Bryce Harper worked the count full, and on the sixth pitch of the at-bat, he struck out swinging.

It was the biggest at-bat in his career to date, and he gave it his all. Just like that, however, another October run was over before it had really begun.

Another Home Run Derby

2018 wasn't a season with as many peaks as fans would have hoped for Harper's potential walk year. That said, the highest high Harper's had in three seasons came as the baseball world descended onto Washington for the All-Star Game and festivities.

It was the festivities that served as the backdrop to Harper's special moment, specifically the Home Run Derby. He had participated before, falling short several years ago and promising not to compete again until the Derby was taking place in front of his home fans. Harper got his opportunity, and needless to say, he took full advantage.

His numbers from that night were plain silly. His total distance for all home runs combined added up to more than 19,000. He hit 10 home runs in 11 swings. He won as the hometown representative for just the third time in Derby history.

None of the numbers, however, can quite capture the incredible atmosphere as he mounted his comeback in the finals. The energy in the crowd was electric, and whether you were there in person or watching on TV, it was obvious how cathartic the experience was for tortured baseball fans in the city.

As the American flag-themed bat swung through the air over and over again, fans weren't thinking about the disappointing first half of the season. They weren't thinking about how Harper might eventually leave for New York or Chicago, and they weren't thinking about a potential Home Run Derby curse. All they were thinking about was watching the biggest name in the game rep harder for their city than anyone could have possibly imagined, all while having fun and doing what he does best on the biggest stage.

It was a night that Bryce, his father (who pitched for him), and every single fan watching will never, ever forget.

Another Farewell

In terms of what happened on the field, Harper's final home game (potentially) with the Nats was fairly uneventful. The most notable moments to come out of the 9-3 Washington victory were his likely replacements in the outfield, Juan Soto and Victor Robles, going a combined 6-for-9 with 5 RBI (each coming from Robles), in addition to the game being shortened by rain with Bryce Harper set to lead off the next inning. It's probably fair to assume he was hoping for one last chance to show off for fans in D.C.

We covered the game at the time, but it's still worth emphasizing that final sentence. The game represented an opportunity not only for fans to show Harper their appreciation, but also vice versa.

At every opportunity, despite his 0-for-4 afternoon, Harper was given a standing ovation. The stadium was only filled halfway, understandable considering the team was well out of playoff contention. Still, the fans that stuck around were heavily invested in Harper's every move. During the hour-long rain delay prior to the game being declared final, most of the fans stuck around on the concourse, knowing that Harper was due to bat next and hoping for one last chance to say a potential goodbye.

There aren't many individual players in baseball who have this kind of pull. It's the ultimate team sport, a title claimed by many but one that truly applies to baseball. You can't force the ball into the hands of your best player in baseball. All you can do is hope that whoever is up next in the order is up to the task. More often than not, when that player was Harper, he was ready for the challenge.

More so than other sports, fans of baseball are beholden to the teams above the individual. And, at the end of the day, Nats fans know that regardless of what happens, Max Scherzer will still be excellent next season. So will Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, and Stephen Strasburg.

But none of those guys is Bryce Harper. None of them so wholly embodied the changing fortunes for baseball fans in D.C. None of them grew up under the national microscope playing for a franchise that hadn't seen a winner (or even a team) in decades. That's the type of player who could bring legitimacy to a city, and who could inspire fans to wait out every minute of a terrible storm, just for a small chance of seeing a guy who was 0-for-4 on the night, playing for an eliminated team against a bottom-five team, get one final at-bat in his first home park.

It was the perfect example of what Harper has meant to the fans. The city has seen plenty of supremely talented players come through town, but not many others have been the instant shot of adrenaline that Harper was. And the fact that fans *didn't* get to see that final at-bat was somehow fitting too. Like every other part of Harper's career, fans didn't get quite everything that they hoped for, but to them it was still worth coming along for the ride.

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