PHILADELPHIA – As the Philadelphia Phillies clung to their playoff hopes and a one-point lead in the eighth inning on Wednesday night, the time has of course come to the team’s best player, the one who helped them to get them here.
When Pat Valaika of the Baltimore Orioles petted a single on the grass of the outfield and Pedro Severino scolded home from second base, the Phillies fell to the right, Bryce Harper recovered the ball and threw a pitch no rebound to receiver JT Realmuto to reduce the potential for a tie game.
Fans in attendance at Citizens Bank Park chanted something that felt fitting for a superstar whose scorching second half kept his team afloat and possibly propelled them close to the top of the race for some end prize. year he has already won once. : “MVP! MVP! “
“He threw an absolute rocket at home,” Phillies first baseman Matt Vierling said after the 4-3 win. “It was a huge game, a clutch game on his part. He’s a clutch player. “
For so long this season, the National League’s Most Valuable Player award seemed to be reserved for Fernando Tatis Jr., the once-thrilling San Diego Padres superstar shortstop. Tatis could still claim the prize because of his spectacular season overall – a .285 batting average, .988 base plus hits, 40 home runs, 25 steals and 94 RBIs. But as the Padres faded. Of the playoff race, Tatis’ play was characterized by injuries, inconsistent play and canoe arguments.
From early August through Thursday, he hit .276, with a .912 OPS, nine homers and 24 RBIs in 32 games. He missed 13 games last month with a partially dislocated left shoulder.
Over the same period, Harper produced video game-like numbers: an average of 0.345, 17 home runs, 42 RBIs and an MLB best of 1,245 OPS entering Thursday. (Only Kansas City Royals wide receiver Salvador Perez, with 20, has more homers over the same span.) Including Thursday’s game, Harper has played 63 straight games since July 17, wiping nicks, bruising and fatigue from being in the field every day. for its Phillies (79-74) as the team occupied two games behind the Atlanta Braves in eastern NL with nine games to go.
“I just have to keep going,” he said earlier this month. “This is what this organization expects. This is also what these fans expect. No matter who is on the mound or how I feel, I have to keep posting every day. “
Harper’s push sent him up the MLB rankings for the season: average 0.312 (sixth), 33 home runs and 1,050 OPS (first).
“You know people say they’re on fire and hot about a week or a few weeks ago,” said Phillies first baseman Paco Figueroa, who also oversees the outfield, said. and the base under training. “It’s been hot for about since the star break. And it’s awesome to watch. Every pitch, everyone watches. “
While the ALMVP run appears to be between Los Angeles Angels pitcher and batter extraordinary Shohei Ohtani, who has been the frontrunner for much of this season, and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who has been the favorite for much of this season, and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. leads the AL in many offensive categories, the NL race looks much murkier.
Some statistics put forward position Harper as the best hitter in the NL, followed by the Washington Nationals’ drop Juan Soto (0.325 on average and 1.029 OPS), then Tatis. But if all of their work is taken into consideration, Tatis plays a more demanding position on the pitch and is a better base runner.
“There are a lot of very good players in the National League, and I’m not saying anything against them, but I just get to see what he does every day, and that’s a plus for me,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. by Harper. “The steps, the base run, the defense, what he was able to do on a daily basis – so I’m a little biased.”
Tagged as a prodigy since making the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16, Harper was NL Rookie of the Year in 2012 with the Washington Nationals and was named MVP in 2015, when he produced one of the most impressive offensive seasons in MLB history: averaging 0.330 with 42 home runs and 1,109 OPS, with 9.7 WAR. At 22, he was the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history.
Since then, Harper has flirted with a similar genius, but has been held back by injuries or inconsistencies. In 2019, the first year of his 13-year, $ 330 million contract with the Phillies, Harper hit .260 with a .882 OPS and 35 home runs – strong production for the most part, but disappointing in light of the bar. high set by his talent. This season, however, Harper, 28, reminded those who had forgotten him that he remains one of baseball’s best hitters.
“The expectations are so high for him, so when he doesn’t have the super elite seasons like he has this year, you kinda ignore him,” said Phillies batting coach Joe Dillon, who was the Nationals batting assistant. coach during Harper’s last season in Washington, 2018.
Dillon later added: “He’s been on a run for a few months where he’s been as good as anyone, but you’re still not impressed for some reason, which isn’t fair to him. . But these are only expectations that surround it. It takes a second to look back at what he’s doing to realize how special it is. “
Improved health helped Harper’s defense and strikes, his coaches said. According to Dillon, Harper has made better use of the lower half of his body this season compared to last year, as he suffered from a back injury for most of the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. Still, Harper hit .268 with 13 home runs, a .962 OPS, and led baseball with 49 steps – a reliable skill bolstered by his keen eye at the plate.
This season, Harper overcame a lingering back pain, a sore left wrist, a blow to the face and a bruised left forearm to play in 132 of the Phillies’ 153 games. (Tatis played in 120 of the Padres 152.)
One of Harper’s biggest areas of improvement from past seasons: his production against low-speed throws, which Dillon said was proof that Harper remained constantly in control with his violent left-handed swing rather than ‘try too hard. Against those pitches coming in on Thursday, Harper was hitting .329 this season – his highest score since his MVP season.
Against the Orioles on Tuesday, Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde showed Harper the ultimate sign of respect during a game, a move commonly used against slugger Barry Bonds in his prime: he intentionally turned Harper on, the go-ahead, in additional sleeves. Realmuto tripled to lead in the tie and Harper, who scored first to win the game, 3-2.
Harper has said little about his success this season. He said he will answer all questions about his season at the end, when he can sit down to look at his numbers to see how and where he can improve. Recently, he was not available for comment as he stuck to a plan that has worked well for him: to prepare for games in the inside batting cages rather than the traditional hitting practice on the field.
Asked about the “MVP!” chants he sparked after a victory on September 16 in which he drove in four rounds, Harper said it was nice to get such a welcome from fans but was more focused on the remaining weeks of the regular season.
Throughout the season, he said he hasn’t let anyone in his life show him his stats – not his wife, Kayla, or his father – his unofficial trainer – or Girardi. He said his friends knew not to text him about it. He said if he saw his numbers somewhere, like on Instagram, he would quickly get them out of his mind.
“I know it’s a little crazy and it just doesn’t make sense,” Harper said recently. “But I don’t like to talk about MVP. I don’t like you looking at my numbers. I don’t like to watch where I am or where I am in the second half or anything like that. I just want to play my game. I just want to show up every night, make sure I’m playing on the right court, hitting third and helping this team win. “