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Bryce Harper heads into last homestand of 2018

September 18, 2018

Normally, the last homestand of a 162-game season for a baseball team that has failed to meet expectations would barely register on the sports landscape in any city, an afterthought save for only the hard-core fans that show up for Fan Appreciation Day.

But this final seven-game Washington Nationals homestand, starting Thursday night against the New York Mets, is something special it will likely be the last time fans get to see Bryce Harper, a player who has become a legend in this town, in a Nationals uniform.

Seven games to see Bryce in person playing for the home team. That may be it.

No one can predict for sure what Harper, who will become a free agent when the season ends, will do once he hits the open market.

But unless somehow the Nationals take advantage of being the only team that can talk contract with Harper in his final weeks of being a member of this team until Nov. 2, when free agency begins the high-profile superstar will hit free agency and likely become the highest-priced free agent in baseball history.

It would be stunning if the Nationals meet the expected price for Harper’s services moving forward somewhere between $300 million and $400 million, probably closer to the latter number.

And he will get that number.

Whatever concerns there were about Harper’s production during his first-half struggles have likely disappeared with his second-half surge, with his 34 home runs, his soon-to-be first 100 RBI season (currently at 97) and raising his batting average from .214 to .247.

All of the Harper hype from the time he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, signed with agent Scott Boras, to now has been pointing toward this moment, when Harper, who will be 26 in a month and presumably entering his prime years, is the most coveted player in the game.

So you have seven games left at Nationals Park to see your hometown legend in person unless you fly out to Denver for the final three games of the season, finishing with the Colorado Rockies.

The last home game is next week, on Wednesday, against the Marlins.

Maybe the Nationals will induct Harper into the Ring of Honor. Whatever the reasoning was for putting Jayson Werth in that club, you could make the case two or three-fold for Harper’s name up there.

I’m joking, of course. It will probably be a strange scene for that final home game, because that requires acknowledging that this is likely the end for Harper in Washington. He will leave behind a complicated legacy, but a legacy nonetheless.

There has never been a player like him in Washington baseball.

Yes, Frank Howard was one of the all-time sluggers the game has ever seen 172 home runs from 1967 to 1970, with 433 RBI but he played hidden on the stage of the lowly Senators.

He was named to four All-Star teams and finished fourth in American League Most Valuable Player voting in 1969, when Howard slugged 48 home runs and drove in 111 runs.

Harper’s made the All-Star team all six years he’s been in the major leagues. He captured the Most Valuable Player award with his 2015 season, when he batted .330 with 42 home runs, 99 RBI and 118 runs scored. He did all this on a team that made the playoffs four of the six seasons he’s been here, a team with a national profile in large part to the presence of Harper.

No other Washington baseball player has ever won the MVP.

All that said, none of those playoff teams Harper was on made it past the divisional series. His postseason numbers are mediocre, and it may be worth noting that in two of his power and run-producing seasons his 2015 MVP year and this season the team failed to make the playoffs.

Some would argue the Nationals lost their chance at championship success in the Harper era.

I would argue that Harper may have lost his chance at championship glory. He had 76 postseason at-bats in six years a lot of chances. He had his moments, including his three home-run series against San Francisco in 2014. But overall, in those 76 at-bats, Harper had 16 hits and a .211 batting average.

See, it’s complicated.

Will he be missed? Of course he will.

Again, we’ve never seen a player like Harper in this town on the baseball field, and it was a gift that, after no MLB for 33 years, Washington fans had six years to stand up and declare that one of the best players in the game and one of its biggest stars played for their team.

But this team is still well-positioned for the future, with two young outfield stars Rookie of the Year candidate Juan Soto and top prospect Victor Robles under control for six more years. And Soto, like Harper, has been worth the price of admission.

With the rise of the Philadelphia Phillies (a possible landing spot for Harper) and the Atlanta Braves, it’s going to be tougher for the Nationals to compete within the NL East. But compete they should.

Can a franchise have success after losing its best player and one of the biggest stars in the game? Alex Rodriguez left the Seattle Mariners after the 2000 season and became the highest-priced free agent in baseball, signing a remarkable $250 million contract with the Texas Rangers.

The year before, Seattle traded Ken Griffey Jr. to the Cincinnati Reds.

Then the Mariners went out in 2001 and won 116 games, tying the major league record by the 1906 Chicago Cubs. They went on to lose in the American League Championship Series in five games to the New York Yankees.

If Harper leaves, Washington baseball will be just fine. But it won’t be the same.

I’d suggest you make a trip to Nationals Park in this final homestand to see in person the final days of an unforgettable chapter in Nationals history.

⦁ Thom Loverro’s podcast, “Cigars Curveballs,” is available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver network.

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