[Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Oct. 22, 2022, the night before Bryce Harper hit his fifth home run of the playoffs on Sunday to help send Philadelphia to its first World Series since 2009.]
PHILADELPHIA—Bryce Harper has spent most of his major league career trying to play Bryce Harper, as John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. As a rare baseball rookie who arrived as a celebrity, it had to live up to expectations and the image. He spent his first six years clocking up free will and pitting himself against Mike Trout. And when he signed with the Philliesa team with six consecutive losing seasons, he had to be big enough to sell tickets and bring a franchise back to respectability.
Something remarkable has happened in the past two weeks. It’s not just that Harper is slashing .410/.439/.872 in the playoffs. It’s also that Harper plays without a burden. The Phillies have become such a force of collective will that Harper no longer needs to play himself in his own movie.
“Honestly, the best way to put it is that it feels like the way I played baseball when I was younger,” Harper said after Game 4 of the NLCS, in which that rumbling avalanche that is Philadelphia subsumed the padres, 10–6, even after San Diego took a 4–0, 6–4 lead. “It’s winning for the team, like when I was playing in the American team [at 17]. The only thing that mattered was winning for the name on the front. It wasn’t about me. It was about bringing the team together with the same goal: to win.
“When you play here in this environment, where the fans are so great, it’s even more about the collective will. It’s about 45,000 fans and 26 players united around a common goal. Honestly, it’s everything I’m feeling right now. I can’t think of anything else.”
His Phillies teammate Kyle Schwarber, who is that good-natured high school football captain who never grew up, rode with Harper on that trip. It was Schwarber and his goofy, down-to-earth honesty that convinced Harper what it means to be the best teammate you can be.
“He’s not thinking about himself,” Philadelphia batting coach Kevin Long said. “And it’s very rare that he doesn’t have to think about himself. It’s very rare, at least since I’ve been with him.
“The reason it takes him back to when he was younger is that he was really part of a team back then. That’s how he feels now. It took some time. It was hard to step out of that role and into that team mode.
Each batting Harper is a marvel of technical brilliance and focus.
“Different approaches, different setups, different terrains, he has it all,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said.
Here are the throws for his last six hits: sinker (95 mph), sinker (91), cutter (90), change (81), curve (72), four seams (93). Twice he beat the Padres in Game 4. In the first inning, he knocked sad San Diego starter Mike Clevinger out of the game with a resounding double to pull Philadelphia 4–3. In the fifth, he broke a 6–6 tie by clipping a brace from Sean Manaea, a left-handed slinger. Long had spoken to Harper before the stick about using a two-shot approach against the southpaw – spreading the legs and simplifying the swing – and Harper did just that for his shot.
“His focus is the laser right now,” Long says. “He is precise with everything. His routine today, I knew before the game it was going to be amazing. He didn’t hit a ball badly. Not one. You know with Bryce. The day before he was little off. He went 1 for 4. Today he was accurate.
Every time Harper reached second place on a double, he would puff out his chest and throw his hands away from it, showing “Phillies” through the way Superman does his “S” insignia.
“I got it from [Edmundo] Sosa,” he says. “I thought that was cool. It’s like being a kid again, except now, instead of ‘USA’, it says ‘Phillies’.
When Harper was a free agent, he told his agent, Scott Boras, to forget about the usual contract bells and whistles. No opt-out. Tired of the six year countdown to free agency, Harper wanted a long-term home, if only to play carefree and chat about the next step, a weight he found tedious. He also wanted a long-term home to start a family. He and his wife, Kayla, have son Krew, 3, and daughter Brooklyn, 2. Boras signed a 13-year, $330 million contract.
For better or for worse, he was married in Philadelphia. In his first two years, he posted a .903 OPS and only missed seven games. In his third year, he won his second MVP. But in those three years, the team didn’t do better than two games over .500.
“He was also going to win MVP this year,” Long said.
Harper was down .318/.385/.599 when he was hit by a 97 mph fastball from Blake Snell, break left thumb. He missed 52 games. When he returned at the end of August, his power was gone. He cut .227/.325/.352.
“When he came back, he needed all that time,” Long says. “He probably needed the playoffs more than anything.”
Harper went hitless in the first playoff game, but since then has hit in nine straight games with 10 extra hits. Long says Harper has taken it to the “next level” with focus and performance. What does it look like?
“It’s just… There’s no… I mean, he’s going to do something special,” Long said. “That’s all I can tell you. I know his swing is going to be good and he’s going to be compact and there’s probably going to be damage. He doesn’t miss when he does that. He uses the whole court and he hits any pitch they throw.
When I ask Harper to explain that strike zone, he says, “Honestly, I can’t think of anything but what I have to do in that moment to win. Put my foot in time and leave. I did not back down. I haven’t analyzed anything. It’s literally just “Get in the box and get to work”. It’s that simple. And that’s why it’s been so fun. That’s all I could have hoped for. Even better because it’s a great group of guys I get to play with.
Harper turned 30 a week ago. He’s already won two MVPs, been named to seven All-Star teams and is one of only three players with 250 home runs, 800 walks and 100 stolen bases before he turns 30. The only others with power, patience and speed at those elite levels at such a young age are Mickey Mantle and Trout. He’s built an elite resume as a pure big hitter, something that can get lost in his stardom.
The playoffs put him in the spotlight. But now he shares it with Schwarber, who hits home in the upper decks and shrubs, and Rhys Hoskins and Jean Segura, who can alternate between clumsy fielders and clutch hitters in minutesand JT Realmuto, the tireless receiver, and Dave Dombrowski and Rob Thompsonthe writer and director of this entertaining story from Philadelphia.
The Phillies are 4-0 at home in the playoffs and 26-9 since July 27. Going to a Phillies game at Citizen Bank Park is like going to your best rock concert ever. It’s going to be loud, and you know you’re going to have a great time. The palpable angst, even disdain, that has permeated this franchise for over a decade has been swept away by the euphoria that this is a team of fate. From wildcard streak victory Saint Louis, the Phillies seem to have been propelled forward, like a rock twirling on a string and suddenly, with all that exploding centrifugal force, letting it go. Harper harnesses this energy as much as anyone.
“What does this playoff show you?” I ask Long.
“He’s the best player in the game,” Long said. “That’s the reason he’s won two MVPs. There’s not an at bat that I really didn’t like. He’s got that switch, and that switch is on right now. He’s a bad man to have at the plate right now. He really is.
On Saturday night, Harper went to bed knowing a win in his next game, Game 5 today, would propel him into the first World Series of his career, and the first for the Phillies in 13 years. Just four years into his 13-year contract, Harper is one win away from bringing a pennant back to Philadelphia.
“How are you going to sleep?” ” I ask him.
“Good. Really good,” he said. “I’m going to put Krew to bed and sleep real good myself. I’m in a good place right now and I just want to stay there.”
More MLB coverage:
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• The Astros are out of the Yankees league
• Jean Segura’s Wild Ride brings the Phillies closer to the World Series
• Phillies manager Rob Thomson is having one hell of a post-season