Harper’s Heroics

Jesse Pantuosco

At least once a year growing up, my grandfather would take us all to see the Rock Cats—formerly the Double-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins—play at New Britain Stadium. Because the nearest major-league park was two hours away (Fenway and Yankee Stadium were about equidistant from where I grew up in Connecticut), heading to the Hardware City to see up-and-comers like Joe Mauer and Francisco Liriano work out the kinks in the minor leagues was usually the most practical way to see a ball game. I have fond memories of those games—the parading mascots, the empty calories provided by my gluttonous consumption of hot dogs and ice cream (always contained in a plastic helmet)—but the party always ended too soon. That’s not hyperbole, either—over the course of my childhood, I don’t think I ever saw a Rock Cats game in its entirety. That’s because the only thing my grandfather put on a higher pedestal than baseball and soft serve was beating the traffic out of New Britain Stadium. As soon as the sixth or seventh inning rolled in, you knew he’d be making a beeline to his Buick to get us home in a tight 15. 

Turns out, Bryce Harper’s parents have a little of my grandfather in them. When the ninth inning came around Thursday at Citizen’s Bank Park, site of the Phillies’ extraordinary come-from-behind victory over the Cubs, Harper’s folks were nowhere to be found. Their stadium suite was pitch-black, a sign that neither of them stuck around to see Harper’s biggest hit in a Phillies’ uniform, a ninth-inning dagger that even curmudgeonly ribs enthusiast John Kruk couldn’t help but marvel at

Overpaid? Perhaps. But on Thursday, Philadelphia’s $330 million slugger was worth every penny. Reflecting on his epic showdown with Cubs reliever Derek Holland in the game’s final at-bat, Harper said he was trying to “cheat,” anticipating that Holland would spring one of his signature sinkers on him. And boy was he ready for it. The sinker may be Holland’s bread-and-butter, but on Thursday, it was Harper who sunk the Cubs, putting the visitors away for good with a walk-off grand slam. Harper’s game-winner—a 413-foot rocket that found a home in the upper deck—was his sixth career walk-off home run and his first as a Phillie.

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Harper has, at least relative to expectations, been a mild disappointment in his debut year with Philadelphia, hitting only .253 with an NL-high 141 strikeouts. There have probably been moments this year, maybe even Thursday night when Harper struck out in two of his first three at-bats, where the Phillies and their fans felt at least a tinge of buyer’s remorse. If this is the Harper the Phillies are getting now, presumably in his prime at age 26, what kind of player will he be at the end of his 13-year contract or even five years from now? As far as mega-talents go, Harper is certainly one of the more frustrating cases we’ve seen, often burying his immense gifts beneath layers of agonizing gaffes and unexplained dry spells. He may be more slump-prone than any star in recent memory, but like a magician summoning a rabbit from his hat or a bouquet from his wand, Harper can make you forget every bad word you ever said about him in a single swing. He’s Batman, appearing out of the shadows and vanishing moments later.

Of course, judging Harper solely on his strikeout totals and paltry batting average would be shortsighted bordering on irresponsible. A six-time All-Star and former first overall pick, the Las Vegas native has always maintained a high on-base percentage, annually finishing among the league leaders in walks. That’s been the case again this year as Harper has already drawn 83 free passes, second in the National League behind teammate Rhys Hoskins. And while consistency isn't his calling card, Harper has never shied away from big moments, routinely coming through when the stakes are highest, just as he did Thursday night and a month prior when he erased Kenley Jansen and the Dodgers with a walk-off double

Further fueling the clutch narrative, the eighth-year outfielder entered Thursday’s action hitting a robust .378 with runners in scoring position and .410 with RISP and two outs. Harper’s bat has been dormant for long stretches this year but he’s heating up at the right time for the Phillies, who find themselves just one game back in a chaotic National League Wild Card race. Of Harper’s team-leading 25 home runs, five have come in his last six contests including three in Philadelphia’s three-game sweep of the Cubs, who have dropped five of six while falling into a first-place tie with St. Louis in the equally up-for-grabs NL Central.     

Harper’s deciding home run, which he punctuated with a jubilant sprint around the bases (but only after taking a near-eternity to admire his masterpiece), was a tough one to swallow for the Cubs, who at one point held a 5-0 lead and carried a four-run advantage heading into the ninth inning. Operating without the assistance of ace closer Craig Kimbrel (currently shelved with knee inflammation), the Cubs turned to Rowan Wick in the ninth, a move that immediately backfired when the right-hander yielded singles to Scott Kingery and pinch-hitter Brad Miller. Cesar Hernandez also reached, taking first on an error by David Bote, who was making only his second career start at shortstop (starting shortstop Javier Baez was under the weather). Pedro Strop wasn’t much better, failing to record an out while loading the bases for Harper. 

Rather than let Strop try to clean up the mess, Cubs skipper Joe Maddon called on Derek Holland, a logical choice given his prowess against lefty hitters (.193 AVG in 88 at-bats this season). Holland proved a worthy adversary to Harper, who fought off several pitches before finally seeing the one he liked. His parents may not have been there to witness his heroics, but 37,000 ecstatic Phillies fans were, rocking the stadium as the former MVP circled the bases. The Cubs’ collapse overshadowed a dominant turn from starter Yu Darvish, who silenced the Phillies over seven shutout innings while lowering his second-half ERA to a masterful 2.36.

Between the launch-angle revolution and balls that many suspect are juiced (a conspiracy theory propagated by Justin Verlander), whatever novelty the home run once had has all but evaporated. Thursday’s 10-game slate saw a combined 48 dingers with nine multi-homer performances. That’s par for the course in the sport’s current landscape, but Harper’s dramatic blast carried more weight than most. For a player burdened by the weight of $330 million and all the expectations that come with it, and for the Phillies, who haven’t tasted the sweet nectar of postseason baseball in almost a decade, it was everything. 

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AL Quick Hits: The Yankees remain optimistic Giancarlo Stanton will return in September. Still nursing a sprained PCL he suffered in June, Stanton has resumed hitting off a tee and has also begun a throwing program. Injuries have limited the former National League MVP to just nine games this year. … Luis Severino is slated to face live hitters on Sunday. He’ll get 10-15 pitches under his belt before moving his rehab to Tampa, where the right-hander will throw a simulated game next week. Shoulder and lat injuries have cost Severino the entire season to this point, though the Yankees are expecting him back for the stretch run, perhaps as a bullpen arm. … Yasiel Puig, who became an American citizen earlier this week, returned to action Thursday following a three-game suspension, going 2-for-5 with two RBI as the Indians routed the Yankees, 19-5. The ban stemmed from a benches-clearing incident last month, which occurred while Puig was still on the Reds. … Nelson Cruz hit in the batting cage Thursday and could resume on-field hitting as soon as Friday. Despite missing the past week with a wrist injury, the 39-year-old still leads the majors with 16 second-half homers. … Gerrit Cole claims his right hamstring is feeling better and hopes to return next week. The right-hander, who currently leads the majors with 226 punch-outs, has been bothered by a right hamstring injury. With Cole unavailable, either Framber Valdez or Rogelio Armenteros will draw the start Saturday versus Oakland. 

NL Quick Hits: Sonny Gray kept the ball rolling with another strong showing Thursday against the Cardinals, holding St. Louis to a single hit over five scoreless frames in a 2-1 Reds victory. Thursday extended the right-hander’s shutout streak to 18 innings. … Rich Hill threw from 120 feet on Thursday and is slated to resume mound work next week. He’ll likely need at least four bullpen sessions before the Dodgers clear him for game action. A strained flexor tendon has kept the left-hander out since mid-June. … According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Max Scherzer could be targeting Sunday for his return to the Nationals’ starting rotation. Despite missing most of the second half with back trouble, the three-time Cy Young Award winner still leads the National League in strikeouts with 189. … Cody Bellinger launched his career-high 40th long ball Thursday in a loss to Miami. He’s the first Dodger to reach the 40-home-run plateau since Gary Sheffield did the deed in 2000. Bellinger is tied for the major-league lead in that stat with Mike Trout, who also bashed his 40th homer on Thursday. … Pete Alonso homered as part of a five-hit performance Thursday in a win over Atlanta. That gives the Polar Bear 39 jacks for the year, tying the National League rookie record set by Cody Bellinger in 2017. Alonso is also closing in on Todd Hundley and Carlos Beltran, who share the Mets’ single-season mark with 41 homers. … Alonso’s teammate Amed Rosario also had a productive night in Atlanta, finishing a home run shy of the cycle in a 5-for-6 effort. He’s gone 9-for-11 at the dish over his last two outings, raising his season average from .275 to .289 during that span. … Ronald Acuna wasn’t allowing any homers on his watch Thursday, thwarting J.D. Davis with one of the most absurd home-run robberies in recent memory. He also made an impact offensively, chipping in with his team-high 35th homer in the losing effort. … Rhys Hoskins underwent X-rays after taking a pitch off his right hand in the ninth inning of Thursday’s comeback win over the Cubs. The 26-year-old has jacked 24 homers and also leads the National League in walks with 91 … Robbie Ray was placed on the injured list Thursday after bowing out of his last start with back spasms. The Diamondbacks left-hander has issued 63 walks, third-most in the National League, though he’s also posted the third-most strikeouts with 187. … Dereck Rodriguez impressed in his return to the big leagues, scattering three hits over seven scoreless innings as the Giants captured a 7-0 win over the D’Backs Thursday in Arizona. The victory was his first since July 15. … Johnny Cueto logged 49 pitches in Thursday’s rehab start for High-A San Jose, topping out at 93 mph. Now a year removed from Tommy John surgery, the right-hander is hoping to join the Giants’ rotation later this season, perhaps by the end of the month.

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