Bryce Harper Returns for Another Swing at Baseball Immortality

Great players rise to the occasion during the postseason, and Bryce Harper is no exception.

Reggie Jackson did it for the New York Yankees in the 1970s. Barry Bonds had a World Series to remember in 2002. Albert Pujols, like Jackson before him, had a three-homer game during the 2011 Fall Classic.

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Harper isn’t quite there yet. But he’s been a standout for the Philadelphia Phillies this fall, hitting the homer that won the National League Championship Series over the San Diego Padres, and in his next at bat at Citizens Bank Park, a first pitch homer to send the Phils to a lopsided Game 3 victory Tuesday night over the Houston Astros. He opened Philadelphia’s ill-fated Game 4 with a walk and a stolen base before striking out twice as Astros pitchers combined to throw just the second no-hitter in World Series history. Houston will need more of the same in order to deter the two-time NL Most Valuable Player.

“It’s been an incredible run he’s been on,” Astros pitcher Justin Verlander said in a media session prior to Wednesday’s Game 4. “He’s so dynamic, and it’s been really cool to watch him grow and turn into the perennial MVP-type player that he is.”

So far this postseason, Harper is hitting .368 with six homers, 13 RBIs and a 1.199 OPS, earning every bit of the 13-year, $330 million contract Phillies managing partner John Middleton gave him prior to the 2019 season.

In the blush of all this success, Middleton told USA Today that Harper is “the most underpaid $330 million man alive.”

When apprised he was nearing the pantheon of the World Series gods, Harper tried to downplay it.

“I’m just so focused on winning,” Harper told the media after his first-inning belt led the Phils to a five-homer barrage and a 7-0 victory. “I’m not focused on anything else besides that. I’m just having the opportunity to come in here and grateful for the opportunity to be here.”

There’s a big dose of redemption for Harper, who came off a broken left thumb late in the season and took a while to regain his swing. Then there’s the contract. Harper turned down 10 years at $300 million from the Washington Nationals at the end of the 2018 season. He had to play an exceedingly slow free agent market and signed with the Phillies just as spring training in 2019 opened.

To add insult to injury, the Nationals, without Harper, went on to win the 2019 World Series in seven games over these same Astros. The Phillies finished 16 games out of first place with an 82-82 record that season.

In Washington, Harper had a reputation as a hothead, getting thrown out of multiple games for arguing with the home plate umpire about third strike calls. Like Bonds, He had anger management issues.

“He would do some things where it’s like, ‘Hey, man, just tone it down a little bit,’” Verlander said.

Dusty Baker, Houston’s skipper, managed both Harper, when he was with the Nats, and Bonds in San Francisco.

Like Harper, Bonds starred in his World Series debut, with four homers, six RBIs and an astonishing 1.994 OPS in 2002, in what wound up being his only Fall Classic.

“I mean, they’re both great hitters,” Baker said in a media session when asked to compare Bonds to Harper. “If you make a mistake, they can hit you out, and if you make a good pitch, they can hit you out. Every pitch that they hit out is not a mistake. Sometimes the hitters get you. And you just hope that you can keep ’em in the ballpark.”

Bonds was always handful to manage. Harper?

“Bryce was pretty easy to manage,” Baker said. “He’s a tremendous player. He’s been in the spotlight for a long, long time. I happen to like him a lot on the field and off the field. I’m very impressed with his dedication to people and to life.”

Harper said he’s turned the page from the Washington era. He’s even moved on from the incident this past June when San Diego’s Blake Snell hit him on the left hand with pitch, breaking his thumb.

Harper, a left-handed hitter and righty thrower, was devastated at the time.

“I’m just really bummed for the organization, for the guys, the city of Philadelphia, the fans,” he said then. “I love running out there and playing every day. Definitely bummed.”

He missed two months and had three homers and 15 RBIs in the 35 games after his return. The thumb injury, in which pins were implanted and removed, is complicated by an earlier right elbow injury. Harper tore his ulnar collateral ligament and is restricted to hitting only until the possibility of Tommy John surgery is determined in the offseason.

“It depends on how bad the tear is,” Phils manager Rob Thomson said Wednesday in an interview. “If the tear isn’t bad it’ll be a procedure and he’ll miss less time. If it’s bad he’ll have the [Tommy John] surgery.”

For a pitcher, recovery from Tommy John is 12 to 18 months. For a right fielder who must use that arm to throw a ball on much fewer occasions, that time span could be shorter.

Harper was saved by the fact that the NL finally adopted the designated hitter rule this season. He began to regularly DH even before the thumb injury. Otherwise, he would’ve been reduced to a bit player coming off the bench as a pinch-hitter.

It was fortuitous timing.

“I’ll say it was,” Thomson said.

As far as Harper’s concerned, that’s all behind him, too.

“Yeah, you just try to flush it as best as possible knowing that the regular season was done, right?” Harper said. “The season was done. Everybody goes back to zero, and all you do is worry about winning as a team and as an individual as well.”

He was named MVP of the NLCS and could receive the same honor for this Series.

He’s on center stage. The pantheon of the baseball gods is waiting.

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