Three hundred and thirty million dollars. What do you get for that kind of cabbage?
Ideally, you get clutch production. Sunday, for instance:
Tie game, bottom of the sixth, the Phillies’ starter had given up three homers and the first reliever had given up another, but the everyday catcher had sacrificed his day off to notch the first pinch-hit homer of his career and the shortstop had collected his 48th hit of the season, so there they were.
Sweep on the line. It was the sort of game that swings home-field advantage in October. It was time for the superstar to earn his check. Did he ever.
Bryce Harper flicked a 3-1 slider off reliever Mike Dunn into the Phillies’ bullpen beyond center field. The relievers scattered, delighted to have to duck. That gave the Phillies a two-run lead that held up for a 7-5 win, which completed a three-game sweep of the Rockies. The $330 million man cashed out, to borrow Mike Scott’s NBA playoff expression.
It also gave Harper a ninth home run and padded his hitting streak to five games -- which, remarkably, is his longest of his season. He’s hitting just .235 after 46 games and entered Sunday’s game at .176 in his last 25.
Gabe Kapler doesn’t think .235 will define Bryce Harper in 2019. In fact, the manager is pretty sure that the slugger found something with that swing.
“It’s not a ‘close’ thing,” Kapler said. “I think he’s there. The home run that he hit to center field was the turning point, and the moment where he started to feel more like Bryce."
It wasn’t a likely moment. Harper was 4-for-22 with seven strikeouts against Mike Dunn ... but 4-for-22 earns you no sympathy. Three hundred and thirty million dollars affords no excuses. They pay up, you put up. And he did.
Harper downplayed his big moment. He commended the bullpen, and he commended J.T. Realmuto, who’d homered a few minutes before, and he commended the rest of the lineup, before he addressed his bomb.
“I got a pitch over the plate I could handle and hit the homer,” he said.
It was only the third time this season he’d hit home runs in consecutive games, and it hadn’t happened since he homered in Games 2, 3, and 4 of this season. Something clicked, right?
“Any given day it could be different,” Harper said. "0-for-4 or 4-for-4, you’ve just got to keep that same mindset. Get better. Keep progressing.”
OK, so maybe Harper isn’t quite locked in, or maybe he isn’t ready to tempt fate by asserting that he’s comfortable. After all, he fanned in his final at-bat ... but that sixth-inning stroke was pure poetry.
It was nothing mighty, nothing herculean; just a balanced pass through the strike zone. It was flush contact on an 85-degree afternoon with a 10 mph wind that ushered the ball toward the hazy Philadelphia skyline, 404 feet from Harper’s bat.
Two hours earlier, he’d hit a ball that traveled about 40 feet, and that one underscored his value as a professional hitter:
Bases loaded, second inning, one out, Harper against lefty starter Kyle Freeman, against whom he was 2-for-10. Harper swung at a slider for a strike, then fouled off three sliders in a row. Things didn’t look promising. Harper then topped a two-seam fastball down the first base line; pulling a pitch to the right side where it was most likely to score a run. It did, and gave the Phillies a 3-1 lead, and ended Freeman’s day, having thrown 65 largely ineffective pitches to record just five outs, and delighted the Phillies dugout.
“That was a big moment in the game,” Kapler said. “He was grinding and battling in that at-bat. He wasn’t having his best swings; he wasn’t on the barrel, by any stretch. He needed to find a way to put that ball in play. The whole dugout was fired up for him.”
“Any time I can do something like that,” Harper said, “that’s what you want. I’ve got to just keep getting the job done. Keep doing it right.”
That’s the point, really.
After he won the 2015 MVP award, Harper hit .243 in 2016 and .249 in 2018. He had a fine 2017, but those .240-range seasons caused plenty of consternation when he asked for all that cash.
For the moment, even at .235, he is the linchpin of an offense that has carried the Phillies to the top of the National League East. That’s all that matters. The Phillies held a 2 1/2-game lead in the NL East over the Braves as they left for Chicago for their next four games, then to Milwaukee for three.
Harper isn’t carrying them -- Jean Segura, Cesar Hernandez, and Rhys Hoskins are doing the heaviest lifting -- but, as a left-handed hitter with a superb eye and limitless power, he complicates matters for opposing managers. His nine home runs are two fewer than Hoskins’ total. His 13 doubles lead the team. He’s playing the best defense of his life, and he’s running the bases like Willie Mays, and it absolutely fuels the rest of the roster.
“We all knew this kind of performance was coming,” Kapler said. “He has the ability to transcend the game.”
Three hundred and thirty million?