PHILADELPHIA — Some players are made for the biggest moments, and then there’s Bryce Harper.
So it’s easy to wonder, what gets someone like Harper through tough times time and time again? He suffered a base-running error Monday night that ended his second game. He was jeered by Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia, who reportedly yelled, “Atta boy, Harper!” in the Braves’ clubhouse.
Harper doesn’t need the extra motivation, but as Phillies manager Rob Thomson said, “thank you” for the motivation.
Harper came back in Game 3 and hit two home runs, staring down Arcia every time he was at second base.
“Yeah, I just stared at him,” Harper admitted after the game.
It’s like Michael Jordan or Babe Ruthian (more on him later).
All of this helped the Phillies defeat the Braves 10-2 to take a 2-1 lead in the NLDS. The Phillies can win in Game 4 on Thursday to seal the series. If not, they’ll return to Atlanta for a deciding Game 5 on Saturday.
Of course, we’ve seen this from Harper before. Last October, Harper hit a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the NLCS, sending the Phillies to the World Series.
It’s easy to forget how he came back from Tommy John elbow surgery this past May, learned how to play first base, and still found his strength during the All-Star break.
But Harper always saves his best form for the playoffs. Harper has nine home runs and 18 RBIs in his past 22 postseason games with the Phillies. He and the rest of the Phillies players feed off the fans. Since 2007, the Phillies have a 25-11 playoff record at Citizens Bank Park. The .694 winning percentage is the best in postseason history at a venue that has hosted at least 30 games.
Now wonder Braves manager Brian Snitker and Phillies manager Rob Thomson have already inducted Harper into the Hall of Fame.
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“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Snitker said. “I mean, he’s one of those guys who loves this stage. You know, he’s a special player. You put him in the spotlight and he shines.”
Thomson is the longtime Yankees coach. He has seen some great players in his time, most notably Derek Jeter.
“We had a couple in New York, but he was a great player,” Thomson said with a laugh. “When the lights are brightest, he’s there. He’s a future Hall of Famer. I love having him on our club.”
Hall of Fame?
Harper turns 31 next week. He said Wednesday that he plans to play into his 40s. Then add in the five-year mandatory waiting period before he can be voted on, and we expect it to be sometime around 2040.
“I’m not even worried about the Hall of Fame, man,” Harper said. “I’m trying to win a championship. I’ve got a long way to go before I think about it. … Anytime you can go out there, make a run for your team and win games, That’s what it’s all about.”
But don’t call it revenge. This is when Harper gets sentimental and he pretty much tells you everything about how he got through his most intense moments.
Harper first went back to when he was 11 years old and told his father how much he wanted to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. He left high school early and entered junior college so he could get there faster.
In 2010, at the age of 17, he was selected with the first overall pick by the Nationals.
Two years later, Harper reached the major leagues. In 2019, he signed a 13-year contract with the Phillies worth $330 million. It was a record deal at the time. It’s a great deal now.
“You’re going to go to JUCO early and have everyone in the world relying on you to be the No. 1 pick,” Harper said. “That’s hard. Being 17, 16 years old, trying to be the No. 1 pick, knowing that if you’re not, you’re a loser. So that’s the pressure.
“Make all the money you can, get your family out of an area, or settle their lives. That’s the pressure.”
Now he has made so much money?
“It’s all cake, man,” Harper said. “It’s so much fun. That’s what it’s all about. Just coming out here and playing the game I love. When you’re having fun, the pressure isn’t there anymore. Those moments, all the pressure goes away.”
So it wasn’t a big deal when Harper faced Braves starter Bryce Elder in the third inning with two runners on base.
Of course, that’s early in the game. But the 45,798 fans at Citizens Bank Stadium were nervous.
After all, the Braves won a major league-best 104 games in the regular season. They hit the most home runs so far this season with 307 home runs. They had just overcame a 4-0 deficit to win Game 2 when center fielder Michael Harris made a leaping catch off the wall from Castellanos to score against Harper. Harper’s double to seal the victory. ‘ Blast.
For the record, Harper said it was not a baserunning error.
“I took a chance and Michael Harris made an unbelievable performance,” Harper said. “If the ball hits the wall or he misses or whatever, I’m going to score. I’m not going to change the way I play because of one moment or situation.”
He certainly didn’t on Wednesday. Citizens Bank Park erupted in the third inning when Harper hit a 408-foot home run off the second deck in right field. Then in the fifth inning, he hit another home run, a 414-foot drive to center field. This gave the Phillies a 7-1 lead.
The pressure is gone.
Harper senses this too, although it does sound like he’s pandering. Then again, he could have had it all he wanted after hitting two home runs. Castellanos also hit two home runs.
Only three sets of teammates in major league history have each hit two home runs in the same postseason game.
The shortlist includes Yankees legends Ruth and Lou Gehrig from the 1932 World Series.
“Pandering, right? Everybody talks about it, everybody thinks that’s what I do,” Harper said. “I love this place. Honestly, I love this place. There’s nothing better than walking into the bank and playing in front of these fans.
“Blue collar mentality, toughness, fighting every day. I’m feeling cold, man. I’m excited. I love this place. I signed here for a reason, to do my best to bring a trophy to this town… I shudder to think about it because that’s what it’s all about.”
You can tell Harper truly believed every word of it. So did the hordes of Phillies fans.
There is no doubt that Arika now knows this too. As he said: “Harper, atta boy!”
Please contact Martin Frank at [email protected]. Follow @Mfranknfl on Twitter.