PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper has spent most of his major league career trying to play like John Malkovich. Being John Malkovich. Who is a rare baseball player? Became a celebrity, he had to live up to expectations and image. He spent his first six years ticking the clock toward free agency and measuring up against Mike Trout. When he signed with PhilliesA team with six straight losing seasons, he needs to be big enough to sell tickets and drag a franchise back to respectability.
Something remarkable happened in the last two weeks. Not only is Harper slashing .410/.439/.872 in the postseason. It’s also that Harper plays unencumbered. Phillies has become a collective force that Harper should no longer star in her own movie.
“Honestly, the best way I can say it is, I feel like I’m playing baseball when I’m young,” Harper said after Game 4 of the NLCS, which included this loud avalanche in Philadelphia. Fathers, 10–6, even after San Diego took leads of 4–0 and 6–4. “Like when I played on Team USA, it’s about winning for the team [at 17]. Winning is the only thing that matters to the leading name. It’s not about me. It’s about the team coming together with one goal: to win.
“When you play here in this environment with so many fans, it’s about collective will. It’s about 45,000 fans and 26 players coming together with a common purpose. Honestly, I feel it now. I didn’t think about anything else.
The Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber, a good-natured high school football captain who never grows up, is gunning for Harper on this trip. Schwarber and his no-nonsense, down-to-earth honesty sold Harper as a great teammate.
“He doesn’t think about himself,” says Philadelphia hitting coach Kevin Long. “It’s rare that he doesn’t have to think about himself. At least in my time with him, it’s rare.
“The reason it takes him back to when he was younger, he was really part of a team. That’s what he feels now. It took a long time. It was hard to get him out of that role and into this team system.
Every Harper in batting is a marvel of technical acumen and focus.
“Different approaches, different set-ups, different pitches, he’s got every shot in the bag,” Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins says.
Here are the pitches for his last six hits: Singer (95 mph), Singer (91), Cutter (90), Changeup (81), Curve (72), Four-seamer (93). He struck out the Padres twice in Game 4. In the first inning he knocked out miserable San Diego starter Mike Clevinger with a game-tying double to pull Philadelphia within 4-3. In the fifth, he cut short a run-scoring double by lefty-slinger Sean Manea to tie the game at 6-6. Long had talked to Harper before batting about using a two-strike approach against the lefthander to ease his swing by spreading his legs, and Harper did exactly that.
“His focus is laser focus now,” Long says. “He’s accurate with everything. His routine today, I knew before the game that he was going to be incredible. He didn’t hit a ball wrong. Not one. You know with Price. The day before, he was a little bit off. He went 1-for-4. Today, he He was accurate.
Every time Harper took second on a double point, he stuck out his chest, pulled his arms away from it, and flashed “Phillies” the way Superman does his “S” sign.
“I got it [Edmundo] Sosa,” he says. “I thought that was cool. It’s like being a kid again, and now it says ‘Phillies’ instead of ‘USA.’
When Harper was a free agent, he told his agent, Scott Boras, to forget about the bells and whistles of conventional contracts. No deviations. Tired of the six-year countdown to free agency, Harper wanted a long-term home, a weight was tiring for him if he didn’t worry about anything else but playing and buzzing about where he was going next. He also wanted a long-term home to start a family. He and his wife, Kayla, have a son, Crew, 3, and a daughter, Brooklyn, 2. Boras offered a 13-year, $330 million contract.
For better or worse, he married 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 the team never finished better than two games over .500 in those three years.
“He’s going to win the MVP this year,” Long says.
Harper was slashing .318/.385/.599 when he hit Blake Snell’s 97-mph fastball. Broke his left thumb. He missed 52 games. When he returned in late August, his power was gone. He slashed .227/.325/.352.
“When he came back, he needed every bit of that time,” Long says. “He probably needs the postseason more than anything.”
Harper went hitless in the first playoff game, but has since hit nine straight with 10 extra-base hits. Long says Harper has gone “to the next level” with focus and efficiency. What would it look like?
“It’s just … no … I mean, he’s going to do something special,” Long says. “That much I can tell you. I know that his swing is going to be perfect, that it’s going to be perfect, and that there’s no damage to it. He never fails to do this. He uses all the fields and he hits any pitch they throw.
When I asked Harper to explain this zone of attack, he says, “I honestly wasn’t thinking about anything other than what I needed to do at that moment to be successful. Just in time put my feet down and go. I didn’t hold back. Nothing was analyzed. It’s literally ‘get in the box and get to work.’ It’s actually quite simple. That’s why it was so much fun. It was everything I expected. Even better because it’s a great group of guys I’ve been lucky enough to play with.
Harper turned 30 a week ago. He has already won two MVPs, been named to seven All-Star teams, and is one of only three players with 250 homers, 800 walks and 100 stolen bases. One such young age was Mickey Mantle and Trout. He’s a pure, great winner who’s built an elite resume that might get lost in his popularity.
The postseason focused on him. But now he shares it with Schwarber, who runs into the upper decks and bushes, and Rhys Hoskins and Gene Segura. Alternating between bumbling fielders and clutch hitters in minutesAnd JD Realmudo, the indefatigable catcher and Dave Dombrowski and Rob ThompsonScreenwriter and director of this entertaining Philadelphia story.
Phillies are 4-0 at home since July 27th and 26-9 since July 27th. Going to a Phillies game at Citizens Bank Park is like going to your best rock concert. It’s loud and you know you’re going to have a good time. The obvious anger, even hatred, that has permeated this franchise for more than a decade has been wiped clean by the euphoria that this is the Team of Destiny. Starting with winning the wild card series St. Louis, Phillies seems to be propelled forward like swinging a rock on a string, and suddenly, all that centrifugal force explodes and lets it go. Harper rides this energy like no other.
“What is he showing you this postseason?” I ask for a long time.
“He’s the best player in the game,” Long says. “That’s the reason he’s won two MVPs. There’s not really a bat I don’t like. He’s got that switch, and that switch is on right now. He’s a bad guy. He really is.”
Saturday night, Harper went to bed knowing his next game, Game 5 today, would propel him to 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 do you sleep?” I ask him.
“Good. Really good,” he says. “I’ll put Crew to bed and get a good night’s sleep. I’m in a good place now and I want to stay there.
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• Gene Segura’s Wild Ride Takes Phillies Closer to World Series
• Phillies manager Rob Thompson is having a postseason