PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — All seemed right with the Philadelphia Phillies when they faced the Nationals in Washington on April 2. Coming off a three-game sweep against the Atlanta Braves to start the season, Bryce Harper, the Phils’ new $330 million man, was taking on his former team for the first time at a ballpark he called home for seven seasons.
Harper didn’t disappoint, crushing a gigantic 458-foot homer into the night, sending Phillies fans who packed the right field stands into a frenzy. The Phillies won 8-2 and it felt like a special season was brewing.
However, fast-forward five months, the Phillies’ playoff hopes ended in Washington as they were swept in a five-game series against the Nationals, who fittingly clinched a postseason spot against the team that signed away their superstar.
It wasn’t supposed to go this way, especially after the signing of Harper in the offseason. The Phillies were the ones supposed to get back to October, not the Nationals. Instead, the Phillies, for a second straight season, crashed and burned, leading to the dismissal of manager Gabe Kapler, pitching coach Chris Young and hitting coach John Mallee.
As the Phils begin their search for a new manager, the Nationals, without Harper, reached the World Series after sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS.
During Harper’s time with the Nationals, they reached the postseason four times, but were unable to get beyond the NLDS, losing in five games three times. In 19 postseason games with the Nats, Harper batted .211 with five home runs and 10 RBI.
After the Nationals’ dramatic win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the NLDS, Nats fans decided to troll Harper. Fair or not, the successes and failures of Harper and his former team will always be intertwined.
“In my eyes, Harper’s legacy won’t be tarnished, but I’m sure in the eyes of Nationals fans, and perhaps some nationally, it will be. But let’s be honest, the reason the Nationals are going to the World Series is all about pitching,” Stolnis said. “Had Harper been on that team, they would be exactly where they are right now. It just so happens that, in Harper’s first year away from D.C., the pitching staff decided to step up and the relievers decided not to blow any deciding Game 5s.”
CBS3 sports director Don Bell believes the same, thinking Harper’s ego could be bruised more than his legacy.
“I think it will hurt his ego more than his legacy. If he goes on to have a Hall of Fame career and wins a title himself, no one in Philly will care what the Nationals did without him,” Bell said.
Despite losing Harper, the Nationals were able to ride their rotation of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, while getting an MVP-type season from their soon-to-be-free-agent Anthony Rendon. Stolnis says, even though he’s a “little surprised” at the Nats’ success, the “team has something special going.”
“Every playoff team that goes on a run has some kind of special voodoo working in their favor, and right now, Washington is riding years of failure and frustration to a World Series appearance. So while it might be surprising given they started 19-31 this year, this was always a team that most expected to compete with the Phillies for the top of the NL East,” Stolnis said.
For the Phillies, it’s simple — what they need to do to compete with the Nationals, the Braves and even the New York Mets is to get pitching, pitching and more pitching.
“Most importantly, they need to sign at least one big-time free agent starter — Gerrit Cole please, get at least one other quality starting pitcher, find some bullpen arms and get better coaching. The front office needs to hire a manager who will run the clubhouse the way a clubhouse should be run, with strong hitting coaches and pitching coaches who can take the analytics and put it into a digestible form that doesn’t overload the players with data and information. And they’ve got to find a way to play with more urgency during the season, that way the team doesn’t feel like they have to play .600 baseball in September in order to survive,” Stolnis said.
Bell says one of the more important aspects for the Harper and the Phillies to maintain success is for the organization to solidify the front office.
“General manager Matt Klentak is on thin ice after the team missed the postseason for an eighth straight year,” Bell said.
However, it’s hard to envision the Phillies competing in the National League East, let alone the playoffs, at this point.
“If they roll into next year with one mid-tier starter addition and bring back the rest of the crew, I won’t be optimistic. Right now, they’re the fourth-best team in the division, and it’s hard to see how they leapfrog the Braves and Nationals, unless Strasburg opts out of his contract and Rendon signs with another team. Right now, I’m pessimistic,” Stolnis said.