It varies from person to person, but today is the day that Washington Nationals fans have either been anticipating in the hope of revenge or dreading: Bryce Harper in another uniform at Nats Park.
But regardless of your feelings about the new Phillies right fielder, the game on Tuesday is going to be must-see entertainment. And not just for Nats fans, but for all baseball fans.
On top of the return of Harper, we get the marquee matchup between him and arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now, Max Scherzer. Two fiery competitors going toe-to-toe for the first of several times. It’s bound to be box office stuff.
This matchup comes after Nationals manager Dave Martinez tinkered with the rotation in order to keep Scherzer on regular rest to start the season. He started on Opening Day last Thursday, meaning his Tuesday start is the usual four days rest.
“Just to keep him on a five-day rotation, and then as we get going, he’ll get an extra day,’ Martinez of the decision. “He’ll start three [games] on the five days, he gets an extra day off, and then that’s when we plan on using [Jeremy] Hellickson.”
In general, the move makes sense as Scherzer is the pitcher that makes the rotation tick. It allows the team to ensure that their prized right-hander will start as many games as possible, which may be even more important against a division rival.
“That was their decision,” Scherzer told reporters about the call to start him for Tuesday’s big game. “That’s for them to decide and make sure everything is in line to line up. That’s Davey and [Derek] Lilliqust and [GM Mike] Rizzo’s call.”
Even though he downplayed the decision to start him in Harper’s first game back, because he’s such a competitor, Scherzer is clearly very excited to face his former teammate.
“It’s going to be fun,” Scherzer said of facing Harper. “Look, the NL East is loaded. Every single game’s going to matter and this one is just as important.”
Expect the righty to be in full mound-stalk mode on such a big occasion, even if it is early in the season. But despite the standout left-handed slugger in the lineup, the Phillies do still have plenty of other threats that Scherzer is wary off too.
“That’s what makes this fun,” Scherzer said. “They have a great team over there. And it’s going to take everything out of our play to try to beat them. Nothing’s new.”
It may not be overly surprising, given their status as teammates in the previous four seasons, but Scherzer has never faced Harper during the regular season.
However, they have squared off in Spring Training, with Harper going 0-for-5 to go with three strikeouts.
That limited sample size is almost certain to grow over the next several years, with the Nationals hoping that it follows a similar pattern. The two sides square off 19 times a year, with Scherzer’s contract running until the end of the 2021 season.
That much is guaranteed, but there could also be a Scherzer extension to keep in D.C. in due course or some potential playoff matchups between the two NL East rivals.
“That’s kind of the way I see it. He’s signed there forever, basically,” Scherzer said. “Or at least forever in my career. We’re going to be facing each other a lot.”
“This is just the first. Whatever happens on Tuesday, it’s going to be the course of a career of facing him. This is just round one.”
With the way both players have been trending in recent seasons, there are bound to be fireworks when the two square off on the diamond.
Harper is still a dangerous hitter with an MVP ceiling, but last season he became close to a three true outcomes player, often recording a home run, a strikeout or a walk.
Scherzer, on the other hand, is one of the best strikeout pitchers in the major leagues but has had a tendency to give up the long ball. That could lead to a fair amount of success for both pitcher and hitter in this particular duel over the course of time.
The key to the matchup is going to be Scherzer’s best secondary pitch in his slider. The right-hander needs to make sure he gets ahead in the count so that he can get away from the fastball where possible, which Harper can kill when he’s on his game.
Harper has been an extremely good hitter in his big league tenure, slashing .288/.416/.575 against the heater in the show, including four seasons where he’s possessed an OPS of 1.075 or above.
Against the slider, however, Harper slashes just .222/.311/.423 in his career, with just two seasons posting an OPS above .712 against the pitch. Some of you may now be having flashbacks of Wade Davis v Harper to finish the 2017 NLDS. Moving on...
Even if Scherzer has a plan of action to beat his former teammate, some will wonder whether the fact they shared a dugout for so long will be an advantage one way or another.
“It goes both ways. Good pitching beats good hitting and vice-versa,” Scherzer said on Sunday, seemingly downplaying the impact of knowing each other’s tendencies.
Though even if there’s no strategic advantage on either side after going to battle together, both will still have to get over the strange sight of seeing each other on opposite sides. Though Scherzer downplayed that too, making it just sound like another facet of the job.
“I guess it will be weird to see Bryce because we’ve only seen him in a Nats uniform,” the right-hander mentioned. “Obviously that’s weird. This is baseball. We’re so used to guys changing teams all the time.”
“For us players, it doesn’t really faze us too much to see guys in new uniforms. As for the fans, that’s the fans. They’ll do what they feel is appropriate.”
With a tribute video reportedly planned for Harper’s first plate appearance, it’s sure the be a raucous atmosphere at Nationals Park when he steps into the batter’s box.
Max Scherzer v Bryce Harper. Season one, episode one. Buckle up everyone.