ANAHEIM — Bryce Harper homered in the first inning on Tuesday, and then Mike Trout stepped to the plate and did the very same thing. Only Trout’s was louder, higher and more prodigious — a 448-foot shot that Statcast recorded as his longest home run this season.
Trout, still the game’s best all-around player, has thoroughly outperformed Harper throughout the course of his career, nearly doubling Harper’s career wins above replacement. But Harper has continually benefited from having great teams around him, a luxury Trout has hardly ever been afforded. And that reality was unmistakable by the end of Tuesday night.
Harper’s Nationals have now won five straight games since the All-Star break. They’re 57-36 and 11.5 games ahead of every other team in the National League East. Trout’s Angels, meanwhile, continue to flounder in perpetual mediocrity.
The Angels — now four games below .500, with five teams ahead of them in the race for the second American League wild-card spot — will probably miss the playoffs for the fifth time in Trout’s six full major league seasons. Another year of the game’s greatest player in his prime will go to waste unless they go on a run and acquire some serious help before the non-waiver trade deadline.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler spoke prior to Tuesday’s game and didn’t sound like a man who’s ready to accept that fate.
He spoke about being “opportunistic,” striking a balance of winning now without mortgaging the future and perhaps using prospects to acquire impact players who are controllable long term, like he did with shortstop Andrelton Simmons two Novembers ago.
Eppler also brought up the possibility of spending more this coming offseason, adding that the Angels have 12 expiring contracts on their payroll, which, he said, is more than any other team in the majors. Asked if that means the Angels can truly go for it again, by adding big-time free agents to surround Trout with adequate talent, Eppler smiled.
“That just remains to be seen,” he said. “There will be some flexibility, and with that comes a chance to inject some creative decision-making, be even more opportunistic when things come around.”
Eppler is in a tough spot, now and in the immediate future. He has five starting pitchers — the same five starting pitchers he would love to have in his Opening Day rotation next season — on the disabled list. And his farm system, most of which he inherited, is still widely considered the industry’s worst. It’s a circumstance that screams rebuilding, but Trout’s presence is enough to sway it.
“Every year, we want to go for it,” Eppler said. “Every year, we want to be that club.”
But the Angels aren’t that club; they haven’t been for quite some time. In the opener of their current series with the Nationals, Harper homered then singled twice and led off the eighth inning with a triple, eventually scoring the go-ahead run. Had Harper not been ruled out on a close play at second base in the third inning, he would have had his first career cycle. Instead, he settled for his fourth four-hit game this season, which raised his batting average to .337, and his 24th home run, which tied last season’s output in 61 fewer games.
“After a year like last year, he’s bounced back for sure, big time,” Trout said. “That’s huge for him.”
Nationals manager Dusty Baker was asked about the biggest difference with Harper these days.
“No. 1, he’s healthy, and No. 2, he’s not in a hurry at the plate,” said Baker, who will give Harper a day off on Wednesday. “He doesn’t like his year last year, and it happens. Everybody can have a down year. The public and the media, they don’t see it like that. But some years everything falls, and some years nothing falls. We knew Bryce was going to bounce back, because he doesn’t like not performing well.”
On April 28, 2012, Harper was called up for the first time and Trout was called up for good. They’ve been linked ever since.
“And we’re always going to be compared,” Trout said. “It’s going to be like that for the rest of our careers.”
Harper and Trout played on the same Arizona Fall League team in 2011, and they have since played against one another in four separate All-Star Games. But their relationship hasn’t extended beyond the field. They carry themselves too differently, play too far away from one another.
“I talk to him every once in a while when we play,” Trout said, “but not much.”
Harper has battled injuries and inconsistencies, but Trout’s first six seasons have been a steady stream of excellence, with the only hiccup being the thumb injury that recently kept him out for six weeks. His 2017 OPS is 1.174 — 100 points higher than Harper’s.
Trout can still win the MVP.
“He’s a talent that comes once in a lifetime,” Harper said. “He’s must-watch TV, always.”
Whether it was a happy coincidence or genius trolling, the Angels gave away bobbleheads for Tuesday’s game. It was a dual one of Trout holding his two MVP Awards — one more than Harper has won thus far, in case you were wondering who has been better.
But one inescapable truth remains: Trout’s entire playoff career consists of three losses to the Kansas City Royals in 2014. And Harper is headed for his fourth division title.