Bryce Harper turned two things on Monday: 31 years old and into even more of a postseason legend.
It was a familiar story, really. Or at least a story that’s beginning to feel more and more familiar. There were the Philadelphia Phillies, notching yet another W in October to inch closer to the World Series. And there was Harper, smack in the middle of it all.
It was technically Kyle Schwarber who got the party started for the Phillies in their 5-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, but Harper was quick to follow with a first-pitch homer of his own off D-backs ace Zac Gallen.
That was just the beginning of a banner day for the former No. 1 pick turned seven-time All-Star and two-time National League MVP. He went on to drive in another run and score one as well.
Harper even used his own fingers to blow out a mock set of candles as he was touching home plate after his homer. And why not? He was, after all, experiencing literal wish fulfillment.
“I’ve always wanted to play on my birthday,” Harper had told reporters before Game 1. “A Game 1 win would be awesome. That’s what you want any time you’re in your own ballpark and doing that. I’ve always wanted to do this, so I’m excited to have the opportunity and the chance to do it.”
There’s Hot, and Then There’s Harper in October
OK, let’s pause and make sure that Yordan Álvarez and Nick Castellanos also get the credit they deserve.
Álvarez has been positively scalding for the Houston Astros on the American League side of the Major League Baseball playoffs, putting up a 1.701 OPS and six home runs. This is first-of-its-kind stuff for a hitter through his first six games in one postseason.
Castellanos, meanwhile, has arguably been more valuable than Harper just among Phillies hitters. He’s homered five times just in his last three games, and two of those were crucial in sinking Atlanta in a 3-1 clincher in Game 4 of the NL Division Series.
But the 1.522 OPS and the four home runs that Harper has in seven games so far? Yeah, that’s pretty good.
Even better? It’s not as if he’s only just stumbled into October dominance.
Harper had some good playoff runs in his days with the Washington Nationals, but what he’s done in his two chances as a Phillie really is something else. In 24 games, he’s put up a 1.260 OPS and 10 home runs.
Six other guys have reached those marks in a span of 24 playoff games before, but only three before Harper did so for a single team: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Reggie Jackson.
Literally Babe Ruth. Literally Lou Gehrig. Literally Mr. October.
MLB Is Going to Need a Bigger Spotlight
The numbers are worth mentioning because numbers are always the first thing that future baseball archaeologists dig up. And when they dig up what Harper did in October of 2022 and 2023, they’ll have an easy answer for how the Phillies won so many games.
It’s a shame, then, that there’s no such statistic as HARP: Hunger Over Replacement Player.
It’s a stat Harper would have been lighting up last October, and never more so than when he hit that home run off Robert Suárez in Game 5 of the NLCS to put the Phillies in the Fall Classic for the first time in 13 years. And this year, he’d be breaking the dang scales.
Everything he’s done in these playoffs has been capital-B Big, with Act 1 consisting of his 115.3 mph seed into the bleachers off Spencer Strider in Game 1 of the Division Series and Act 2 consisting of him quickly turning the death of a rally into a rallying cry.
Did he make a mistake in venturing too far off first base on Castellanos’ deep drive in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS? That’s a yes.
But did Orlando Arcia make an even bigger mistake with his mocking “Atta boy, Harper!” comments after the fact? Judging from the gaping holes that Harper stared through his soul after not one but two home runs in the very next game, that’s also a yes.
If all the T-shirts are any indication, it’s now the Phillies and their faithful who own “Atta boy, Harper!” It’s a bit of about-face appropriation that defies comparison, save for maybe in some unknown Bizarro World where Pedro Martinez himself made New York Yankees fans rue the “Who’s your daddy?” chant.
Whatever the case, it is a rare treat indeed to be watching a player who’s not only performing his best on the biggest and brightest stage, but who clearly wants to and knows he is.
Should this text survive, future baseball archaeologists should take note: That’s Harper right here, right now.
How Is Anyone Supposed to Stop the Phillies?
The Phillies, meanwhile, are now 6-1 in these playoffs. They’re a perfect 5-0 at home at Citizens Bank Park, bringing their home record to a perfect 10-0 in their last 10 playoff contests against National League foes.
Three more will get them into the World Series for the second time in as many years. And if that’s the line for how many more wins they have left in them, one is inclined to take the over.
It’s not just Harper, after all. Or even Harper and Castellanos. Trea Turner has a 1.426 OPS in his own right, with J.T. Realmuto falling just shy of a .900 OPS at .898. And on the pitching side, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are but two parts of a pitching staff with a 1.60 ERA.
In case anybody’s asking, those six guys’ contracts add up to more than billion dollars. Who else but Harper said it best: “That’s why you spend the money, baby.”
Credit where it’s due, nobody had the Diamondbacks beating the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers to even get to this point. They swept both of them, and they even made things interesting on Monday by scoring the last three runs of the game.
It’s up to Merrill Kelly to keep turning the tide in Game 2 on Tuesday. If there’s any reason to think he’s equal to the task, it may be that Harper’s only hit off him in five career at-bats is a mere single.
For now, though, the series is his and the Phillies’ to lose. And the longer they keep rolling, the more likely October 2023 is to be remembered as Bryce-tober.
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