PHILADELPHIA — His back hurt. He irritated a nerve in his right knee when he fouled off a ball in the fourth inning. He needed a bandage for his left forearm when the fifth Giants pitcher of Wednesday’s interminable game clipped him with a 76 mph slider. So, Bryce Harper was not totally sure if the slider he crushed to the right-field corner could stay fair.
“I don’t even know,” Harper said after an 8-6 Phillies loss in 10 innings. “I saw it curving a little bit. But I thought I hit it pretty hard enough to be able to keep it over the fence before it went foul.”
He did because he’s Bryce Harper and it was a dramatic moment tailored for him. Maybe his day is a footnote because the Phillies failed to sweep the Giants, but if anything, Harper offered more proof of how hard it is to beat the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park when the game has an elevated feel. San Francisco needed to use 10 pitchers — even after its starter went five innings — to salvage the series. It was an absurd game.
“I thought we kind of let that one go today,” Harper said. “I thought we could have definitely swept. That’s a full game in the column right there. I wish we would have won that one today.”
Harper, as always, was a protagonist. He tied the game with his three-run homer in the ninth inning against All-Star closer Camilo Doval, who blew his second save in two days here. Harper hit four balls at an exit velocity of 110 mph or harder; only two players have done that in a game since 2015, when Major League Baseball installed its Statcast tracking system. Giancarlo Stanton hit four 110 mph balls in a 2015 game. Aaron Judge hit five in a game last season.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) August 23, 2023
Harper’s power stroke is back. That ranks high among the developments in this fruitful August for the Phillies.
“Oh my God,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “Yeah, he’s on it right now. His swing is good. He’s using the field. He hit four rockets.”
Harper is hitting .299/.392/.468 on the season. This month, he’s batting .333/.420/.707 in 88 plate appearances. He has seven homers in August. He’s hitting the ball harder and at a higher angle. He’s unlocked more power, although Harper said he’s not making a concerted effort to do that.
“Just getting pitches on the plate to swing at and I’m not missing them,” Harper said. “Trying to not chase the pitches out of the zone. Take chances when I can. Just continue to try to square up baseballs. Like I said about a month ago, I’m not worried about the homers or anything like that. Just trying to square up baseballs as much as possible. When I’m doing that, we have a really good chance to go out there and win games.”
They do. The Phillies have slugged 43 homers this month — more than any team in the majors. They should set a franchise record for homers in one month; the previous mark is 46, set in September 2019.
It’s not perfect. J.T. Realmuto and Nick Castellanos have chased too much. Although Kyle Schwarber is getting on base and slugging at elite levels, he continues to strike out. But a slugging Harper in the middle of it all changes the dynamic.
He’s doing it while nursing a bad back. Harper has played first base in only three of the team’s last 11 games. He suffered a low-back spasm earlier this month. The Phillies do not think it is a serious injury; it hasn’t prevented Harper from hitting, and hitting the ball hard. But it has given them pause about Harper straining his lower back as a first baseman for 160-or-so pitches in the field. The Phillies are better with Harper at first base and Schwarber as the designated hitter, but they are willing to sacrifice that marginal gain for now if it helps the bigger picture.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Thomson said. “His back’s a little stiff.”
How does Harper’s right knee and left forearm feel?
“Yeah,” he said, “I feel good.”
How does his back feel?
“Back feels good,” Harper said.
Could he play first base on Friday?
“I think we’re going to check back after the off day and see how I feel,” Harper said. “I don’t want to rush into it and go back to square one. But I feel good.”
Earlier this season, when Harper endured the longest home run drought of his career, the Phillies were confident the long balls would return in bunches. They have. Harper, when right, is powerful enough to carry a whole team. The Phillies’ next six games are at home against two of the lesser pitching staffs in baseball. The Cardinals are depleted after selling at the trade deadline; their team ERA is in the bottom 10 this month. The Angels, in town next week, have the worst team ERA in August.
It’s a chance for Harper and the Phillies to continue their offensive barrage and pad a 2 1/2-game lead in the race for the top National League wild-card slot. There are 35 more regular-season games.
“It doesn’t really matter where we’re at right now,” Harper said. “We have to keep going. Right? We have to stay there. So, 35 to go, gotta keep rolling. There’s teams trying to chase us down. It’s very competitive in this wild card right now. There’s a lot of teams that everybody thought were going to sell (at the trade deadline) and they didn’t and look where they’re at now.”
Harper’s game-tying homer was the 297th of his career. When Harper notches his 300th homer, he will become only the 19th player in baseball history to collect 1,500 hits and 300 homers through his age-30 season. Eleven of those players are Hall of Famers. At least one other, Albert Pujols, is a future Hall of Famer. Three — Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Manny Machado — are still active. The others on the list: Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Juan Gonzalez.
That’s decent company.
“It’s cool,” Harper said. “I think, at a young age, you’re not really thinking about 300. You’re thinking about more. So, 300 is a good stepping stone to the next 100 or 300 or whatever it is. Yeah. Just gotta get there.”
Wednesday’s game ended with Harper in the on-deck circle. He would have been the potential winning run had he batted. Maybe he would have risen to the moment once more.
He looks like that guy again.
“I feel good,” Harper said. “Just have to keep going.”
(Top photo of Bryce Harper watching his ninth-inning home run: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)