Harper makes presence felt on Opening Day

March 29th, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- The scene outside Citizens Bank Park had the feel of a fall Sunday, not a Thursday morning in late March.

The clear sky was clouded by the smoke from portable grills, the smell of meat wafting through the crisp air. Fans tailgated across the street at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL's Eagles, preparing for the first of 81 home games in a baseball season filled with rising expectations.

Those expectations, of course, ballooned significantly one month ago. That's when agreed to a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, bringing his immense talent to Philadelphia after seven seasons playing just 120 miles down I-95 for the division-rival Nationals.

Scores of fans sported brand-new No. 3 jerseys and T-shirts, hardly a surprise after Major League Baseball announced earlier in the day that Harper's jersey had already taken over the top spot in the league's jersey sales despite spotting everybody else a two-month head start.

Opening Day was accompanied by all the usual pomp and circumstance, from pregame musical performances to parachuters raining down on the field. The customary introductions went as expected: Boos for the visiting Braves and cheers for the hometown Phils, the loudest one reserved for the city's newest star.

"The story was the atmosphere," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. "It felt very much like October out there."

This ballpark hasn't hosted meaningful October games since 2011, but the Phillies' 10-4 win over the Braves was the kind of game that will give fans here the hope that things will change this fall. And although the box score won't reflect much of a contribution from Harper, his presence has given the Phillies a different look and feel.

Harper trotted out to right field before the first inning, his bright green cleats visible from any seat in the ballpark. When the scoreboard showed a close-up of the spikes, it revealed the green was Phillie Phanatic fur-colored, with the mascot's face in the corner of the shoe. Say this for Harper: He's doing his best to court favor with his new home crowd.

"I just thought it would be cool," Harper said. "Just bring some fun to the game. The Phanatic is always happy and smiling, so why not?"

Once , who finished third in last year's NL Cy Young vote, made quick work of Atlanta in the top of the first, the buzz in the ballpark began. Harper's first at-bat was only minutes away.

What many fans forgot was that another Phillies newbie was about to make his debut first.

blasted 's 2-0 fastball into the left-center-field seats, the leadoff homer sparking an already enthusiastic crowd. Harper stepped up one out later to a big ovation, and even after he rolled over on a slider for a routine groundout to first base, the fans gave him an ovation, seemingly happy just to see him in their team's uniform.

Harper's next couple of at-bats were uninspiring; he struck out against Teheran in both the fourth and fifth innings, the first coming with a runner in scoring position and nobody out. A very faint smattering of boos could be heard after each whiff -- this is still Philly, isn't it? -- but as Harper will quickly learn, a gigantic contract comes with great expectations, even on Opening Day.

Harper wasn't given a chance to do something in his final at-bat, as Braves manager Brian Snitker intentionally walked him to load the bases with nobody out in the seventh. made Atlanta pay, belting a grand slam two pitches later to break the game open.

"That's the presence of Bryce Harper, right?" Kapler said.

"We've talked about it all spring long; if I walk, if they walk me, the guy behind me doing damage like he did," Harper said. "That's what it's all about."

So while Harper's debut may have been anticlimactic from an individual standpoint, fans left the yard crowing about a victory, dreaming of the kind of season they haven't experienced in a decade.

If the Phillies can post a convincing win without any meaningful contribution from Harper, imagine how good they'll be when he hits?

Run-scoring singles from Odubel Herrera and Cesar Hernandez and a three-run blast by Maikel Franco -- all three holdovers from last year's club -- gave the home team a commanding 6-1 lead after six innings.

J.T Realmuto flexed his arm by throwing out a runner at second base in his Phillies debut, while Nola allowed one run over six solid innings. Hoskins' slam was the exclamation point.

It was a message to the NL East, for sure. But more importantly, the Phillies' roster sent a message to Harper on a day when reality didn't live up to the hype.

We've got your back.

The focus was -- and will continue to be -- on Harper, which should allow his teammates to keep their heads down, go about their business and do their jobs. David Robertson, another of the first-year Phils, experienced this phenomenon during his many years with the star-studded Yankees.

"Guys like Bryce, Alex [Rodriguez], Derek [Jeter] or [Aaron] Judge, they're always going to be noticed by the cameras constantly," Robertson said. "A little bit of the pressure sitting on the rest of the team comes off because one guy takes a lot of the attention."

Even the best players in the game are going to have bad days. Maybe even bad weeks. The best teams are the ones that can pick up the slack at those times. Harper's bat will carry the Phillies many times over the next six months, but on a day when so much attention was on Harper, his teammates proved that no matter how many fans are sporting his No. 3, this team is built around much more than one guy.