In the nearly six years since the last time Sunday Night Baseball came to town, the Phillies endured seasons of 89, 89, 99, 91, 96 and 82 losses. Citizens Bank Park all but fell off the grid. ESPN couldn’t find the place with a compass, to say nothing of Google Maps.
Bryce Harper changed all that in three days.
Philadelphia is baseball central once again, and the $330 million star in right field is the marquee attraction. Harper stole the show before a national audience Sunday night, from his theatrical bow to the fans in the bleachers prior to the first pitch to his seventh-inning solo homer that prompted more “M-V-P!” chants and, intentional or not, nearly touched off a brawl.
The Phillies won again, 5-1, completing a three-game, season-opening sweep of the Braves, the defending division champions. It’s the first time that the Phils opened a season with three wins in a row since 2011, the last year that they made the playoffs. If they win Tuesday night in Washington, it will mark their first 4-0 start since 1915.
Talk about making a statement.
“No question, there’s something to it," said pitcher Jake Arrieta, who walked six batters on a cold (52 degrees at first pitch) and windy (17 mph gusts) night but still made it through six innings. “We wanted to come out and set the tone in our park, and we did that. I think it just sets the tone for the season.”
There’s a long way to go, of course, before it will become reasonable to start thinking about October. April is only just dawning. And the Phillies still have enough questions, mostly related to their pitching, to keep the skeptics fully fueled.
But Harper has turned the baseball world’s attention back to Philadelphia for the first time in a long time. And Harper Mania is only going to grow this week, as he makes his return to D.C. to face the Nationals.
Harper’s home run against Braves reliever Shane Carle gave the Phillies a 4-1 lead. Just as he did Saturday night after going deep for the first time with the Phillies, Harper emphatically high-fived teammates and played to the crowd after touching home plate.
Two pitches later, Carle hit Rhys Hoskins on the left shoulder and was ejected from the game. Harper screamed out from the top step of the dugout in the latest display of emotion from the slugger.
“It really [ticks] me off when balls go under Rhys Hoskins’ chin,” manager Gabe Kapler said, noting that Hoskins got knocked down three times in the series. “It really bugs me.”
Hoskins was clearly irritated by the situation, too, noting that he “called [Carle] a few names” on his way to first base. But most Phillies players, including Harper and Arrieta, doubted that Carle intentionally tried to hit Hoskins.
“I don’t know if there was intent behind it,” Hoskins said. “Given the situation of the game, it doesn’t seem that there was, but you never know.”
Might Harper’s homer celebration have prompted Carle to retaliate?
“Don’t give up a homer, then,” said Hoskins, who noted that the Phillies play five more series against the Braves this season.
Regardless, it all capped a stirring weekend for Harper and the Phillies, who outscored the Braves by a 23-11 margin. Contrast that with last season, when the Phillies dropped two of three games in Atlanta and Kapler came under criticism for several in-game decisions, including bringing in a relief pitcher who had not yet warmed up.
“Two different ballclubs,” Kapler said. “The energy is obviously much, much different.”
Andrew McCutchen, the other free-agent outfielder signed by the Phillies before this season, homered for the second time in three games, tying the game, 1-1, in the third inning. The Phillies scored two runs without getting a hit in the fifth inning to grab a 3-1 lead.
And then there was Harper, who reached base four times. He drew a walk in the first inning, lined a double off the base of the left-field wall in the third, and walked again in the fifth before going deep.
After selling out the season’s first two games, the Phillies drew 41,410 fans for the first Sunday Night Baseball game in Philadelphia since April 21, 2013. With Harper in red pinstripes, there almost certainly will be others this season.
“It’s been great,” Harper said. “The fans showed up for us each night, especially when it’s cold out tonight they still showed up. That what it’s all about. They grind with you all year long. That’s what they’re going to do and we appreciate that tremendously. They expect us to play good baseball and we expect ourselves to play good baseball.”