Leadoff means blastoff for Bryce Harper and the Nats

WASHINGTON -- The force was with Bryce Harper. Lots of force.

Even though Nationals Park is waiting until Saturday to hold its official Star Wars Day festivities, Harper chose to celebrate on May the Fourth by putting on a power display that could’ve made a lightsaber blush.

Leading off in the bottom of the first, the Washington Nationals slugger hit an opposite-field homer off Philadelphia Phillies starter Nick Pivetta. The very next inning, he obliterated a first-pitch changeup from Pivetta, sending it way beyond the center-field wall for his second blast of the game. The 473-foot laser was Harper’s longest long ball since the beginning of the Statcast era.

“It’s now how far,” Harper said after Washington’s 7-3 win over Philadelphia, “it’s how many.”

If you’re scoring at home, the former MVP now has four home runs in four games since moving into the leadoff spot earlier this week, and he now leads the National League with 12 round-trippers. He nearly added to that in the third inning, when he just missed becoming the second player since 1930 to homer in each of the first three frames (Manny Machado did it in 2016). But his fly ball to right center fell just short, dropping into Odubel Herrera’s glove at the warning track. As for the Nationals, they haven’t fallen short in a while.

Propelled by Harper’s big night, the defending National League East champs rattled off their sixth straight win. The past four of those have come since the team’s star right fielder likened Washington to a minor league squad.

“We’re 13-16 with the Syracuse SkyChiefs,” Harper said earlier this week, a tongue-in-cheek reference to an injury-ravaged roster that has been without stalwarts Adam Eaton, Daniel Murphy, and Anthony Rendon.

On Friday, Washington put its money where Harper’s mouth was. In the clubhouse before the game, and on the field during batting practice, most of the Nationals donned gray T-shirts that featured the logo of the Syracuse Chiefs, the club’s Triple-A affiliate. Then the Nats went out and looked like anything but a minor league team.

Facing a young but surprising Phillies team that came to D.C. two games ahead of the Nats, starter Gio Gonzalez tossed five scoreless frames despite a 39-minute rain delay that interrupted the game in the bottom of the fourth. Matt Adams, who has been hitting third in Washington’s new-look lineup, kept pace with Harper by clubbing his fourth homer in as many games. As if that weren’t enough, the burly Adams, a first baseman by trade who has been filling in for Eaton in the outfield, made a leaping grab at the wall to rob Maikel Franco of a home run.

“The guy’s doing it all,” Gonzalez said of Adams. “It was just unreal what he did on that catch.”

Equally unreal is what Adams has been doing at the plate. Since taking over for Harper in the 3-hole, the 29-year-old former Cardinal is hitting .429 and has driven in seven runs in four games. He also has drawn four walks against one strikeout.

“I'm not one to really dwell on stuff like this,” Adams said of his hot streak, “but it's definitely feeling good. So, I’m just going to keep running out there with confidence every day.”

For as much confidence as Adams has in himself, he has even more in his team’s new leadoff hitter.

“He's a special player,” Adams said of Harper. “His work ethic, one. He gets here early, gets his work done and just the way he prepares; he's an animal out there, so it's fun to share the field with him.”

Lately, it has been fun for all the Nationals to share the field, which wasn’t the case a week ago. After winning four straight to start the season, they lost 16 of their next 23 contests to fall five games under .500 for the first time since April 2015. But thanks to their recent winning streak, they finally climbed back above .500 on Friday for the first time in over three weeks, and they have moved to within three games of the first-place Atlanta Braves.

“We’re doing a great job,” Harper said. “Keep having good at-bats, keep pitching the ball well. Bullpen threw the ball well. As a team, just trying to get some at-bats going, staying strong out there.”

On Friday, with the force on their side, they were plenty strong.