By virtue of the enormity of his new contract, expectations will always be high for Bryce Harper. He gets the money, he draws the focus and he has a lot of mouths to feed among the success-starved fans of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Until Thursday night, Harper has basically had a so-so season, one that mirrors his largely mediocre 2018 season in Washington when his average dipped below .250 and his strikeouts soared. This year, he is hitting .253 with a Major League-leading 141 strikeouts.
To be honest, there’s been nothing special about him. He’s played like a slightly-above-average outfielder, not one who cashed a 13-year, $330 million check that will keep him with the Phillies until a touch of gray infiltrates his beard.
But on Thursday in Philadelphia, Harper’s inherent ability, the gamesmanship that constantly bubbles below the surface waiting for its Mike Trout moment, captivated a city whose energy had been dulled on Wednesday by a shooting that injured six city policemen.
With the Phillies trailing the Chicago Cubs 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, Harper stepped to the plate and cranked a majestic one-out grand slam homer against reliever Derek Holland that capped a six-run rally.
For the first time this season, the quality of the merchandise matched the shelf price.
“That was sick. Wow, I don’t even know. I mean, that was awesome. Oh my gosh,” said Harper. “Besides winning the division and getting to the playoffs (with Washington), that was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had in my life.”
The home run served a practical purpose. It moved the Phillies to within one game of the Cubs for the second wild card in the National League.
Making the blast even more special was that Harper battled back from an 0-2 count. He worked the count back to 2-2 and then fouled off a pitch before finally connecting for his 25th homer of the season.
“Before I went to the plate, I touched my heart and I was thinking to myself: ‘Why am I not jittery? Why am I not excited?’ But that’s just how I am,” said Harper. “I go up there and each at-bat is the same. I don’t think about bases loaded. I try to get a pitch I can drive and hopefully good things happen.
“I love those moments. I love those opportunities. I think it helped me a lot from a young age going through those emotions and having those opportunities at 8, 9, 10 years old in big-time games going to different states and cities playing for a lot of teams.”
“I just love it. It’s a lot of fun. These fans do expect that and I expect to do that for them on a nightly basis – and if I don’t, they’ll let me know and I like that, too.”
If anything, Harper has come to master the walk-off homer. It was the sixth of his career, the second-most of any Major Leaguer since he made his debut in 2012. According to ESPN’s stats, only Atlanta’s Josh Donaldson has more (seven).
Harper is getting hot at the perfect time of the season. With the NL Wild Card race now officially a wild ride, he has seven homers and 15 RBIs in his last dozen games.
“I think everyone who watches baseball expects him to do that every time he’s up,” said Phillies starter Drew Smyly. “He’s fun to watch. But when he came up, bases loaded, him in the box, one out, I know us in here, we just felt it. Like he was going to do it.”
Harper has assimilated perfectly into the Phillies team. He is very popular with the teammates, as the transcendent Trout is with the Los Angeles Angels. He has endeared himself with the fan base by playfully adopting the persona of their beloved mascot, the Phillie Phanatic, by wearing headbands and cleats with its likeness on them. He seems perpetually joyful, even when he’s scowling.
As Smyly said, Harper’s teammates expect fireworks every time he comes to the plate because he has shown himself capable of it so many times before.
“It’s easy to talk about it now,” outfielder Jay Bruce said. “If he had flown out or grounded into a double play, then you wouldn’t be asking me. But it just felt like it wasn’t over.”
After the ball left the park, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler expressed what everyone else seemed to be thinking.
“I think we were so excited in the dugout, probably half of us didn’t see where it landed,” said Kapler.
Said Harper: “I thought it was gone, and I just took off. I watched it for a minute just to make sure it was fair, and then I took off as quick as possible.
“I hit J.T. (Realmuto) with my helmet and said sorry to him, but he said he didn’t feel anything so I guess I didn’t hit him. I went to throw my helmet on the plate. I don’t know. It was awesome.”
If the Phillies are going to make a run at the playoffs – and the Atlanta Braves are likely too far ahead in the NL East to be caught – then Harper is going to need to do these things on a more regular bases.
In Miami on Thursday, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger launched his 40th homer and later in the day in Atlanta, Pete Alonso of the New York Mets followed with his 39th. Harper is not that type of player. He is not Popeye after a can of spinach.
But he is the type of player who can carry a club, certainly one who can rally a team when his performance begins to match the expectation, which is precisely what Thursday was all about. Harper’s slugging percentage (.490) is at its highest in two months.
“In fairness, I think energy tends to come with success,” said Kapler. “Energy tends to come with scoring runs, and energy tends to come with wins. So I’m not sure what’s coming first here.”
According to The Athletic, the Phillies had lost 316 straight games when trailing by at least four runs heading into the ninth inning. But that was before they signed Harper, before they handed him one of the most extraordinary contracts in the game’s history.
Now the city expects more.
“That’s it,” said Kapler. “That’s why you sign one of the best players in baseball. That’s why you spend so much time and energy trying to get him to come to Philadelphia.”