Bryce Harper posts ‘Thank you’ hours before 1st game back

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              Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper celebrates after hitting a home run off Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Jesse Biddle during the seventh inning of a baseball game, Saturday, March 30, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The first boos, guttural and loud, greeted Bryce Harper during pregame introductions 15 minutes ahead of the rain-delayed first pitch Tuesday night, as he stood in the Nationals Park visitor’s dugout wearing his Philadelphia Phillies uniform — and hours before he marked his second-deck homer with an epic bat flip.

The jeers kept coming, filling the chilly air when Harper walked to the plate as the No. 3 hitter for Philadelphia, his initial at-bat as a Washington opponent. More hostility came while he awaited each pitch from Max Scherzer, all of that negativity interrupted only by the sheer-joy roars after each strike of his eventual whiff, which concluded with a swing-and-miss at an 85 mph changeup Harper called “nasty.”

Harper had said he expected a mixed reaction from spectators in his return to D.C. after leaving via free agency to sign a $330 million, 13-year deal with the Phillies. Sure sounded rather one-sided from an announced attendance of 35,920.

“It’s a little different, coming back here and getting booed,” Harper said. “But for me, it’s exactly like going to another ballpark.”

Truthfully, of course, it’s not just ANY other stadium. Until last week, the Nationals were the only big league club the 26-year-old Harper had played for.

“It was fun to compete against him,” Scherzer said. “The crowd was really into it, more so than I thought it was going to be.”

Adding to the theatrics of it all, as is his wont, Harper delivered a no-doubt-about-it homer off Jeremy Hellickson in the eighth inning, a two-run shot estimated at 458 feet and put the Phillies ahead 8-2, which would be the final score. That topped off a 3-for-5 showing with three RBIs, and Harper sent his bat twirling in the direction of his former dugout, then engaged in elaborately choreographed celebrations with his current teammates.

In the bottom half of the first, there was booing as Harper headed out to play right field — where fans in the front row of the bleachers wore shirts that spelled out “T-R-A-I-T-O-R” — and when he caught Adam Eaton’s fly for the first out.

“He’s pretty mentally tough,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said, calling the loud and sustained boos “a bit of a surprise for everybody in our dugout.”

Added Kapler: “I thought he responded in a pretty impressive way.”

Sure did.

After Ks in his first two at-bats, Harper doubled off Scherzer in the fifth and singled in a run off lefty Matt Grace in the sixth. Harper reacted to both with a “Fortnite”-inspired exaggerated wave toward the Phillies’ dugout. Fans who made the trek down I-95 from Philadelphia regaled him with chants of “M-V-P!” and “We got Harper!”

He noticed.

“Really fired me up,” Harper said.

He was facing the organization that drafted him No. 1 overall in 2010 and brought him to the majors as a teen. Washington’s uniform was the one he wore when he won NL Rookie of the Year and MVP honors, when he earned six All-Star selections in seven seasons — including last year, when he stole the show by winning the Home Run Derby in D.C.

“It’s where,” he said, “I grew up.”

But the Nationals offered him less money than the Phillies did, with millions that would be deferred for decades. So he moved on.

He posted a “Thank you” message Tuesday to Nationals fans and the city of Washington on Instagram. The only time Harper really betrayed a hint of real emotion before the game was when he choked on his words while talking about how he and his wife, Kayla, are expecting their first baby.

Otherwise, he spoke about being “excited for the next chapter” and “pumped” to be back.

“I imagine it’s got to be a little weird. A ton of emotions,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “Obviously he gave a ton to this organization. And he and Kayla gave a ton to this city. I hope people don’t forget about that. It’s been talked about for a while, too, so I’m sure there’s a ton of buildup for him.”

After Harper’s 15-minute session with reporters, he left the stadium’s interview room. Instead of turning to his left to go to the home clubhouse, he walked to his right, down a hallway leading to the visiting clubhouse.

Later, he hung out in the lunch room, chatting and laughing with Andrew McCutchen and two other Phillies.

Across the ballpark, Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman insisted beforehand: “Honestly, it’s just another game.”

To him, maybe.

To the Nationals supporters who paid for the right to boo when the guy who wore No. 34 for so long strode to the plate wearing his No. 3 Phillies jersey, probably not.

“Emotional day. You’re coming back here, where you’ve spent seven seasons of your career, and try to just go about it the right way and play your game and not worry about your surroundings and things like that,” Harper said when it was all over. “Just trying to soak it all in and soak it up a little bit and enjoy the day.”