Seven years ago, in the midst of his first big-league playoff race, Bryce Harper bashed 10 home runs in his final 34 games to help the Washington Nationals reach the postseason for the first time since they were the Montreal Expos 31 years earlier. It was an extraordinary stretch run, especially considering Harper couldn’t even grow his now-signature beard.
But although he was 19, he wasn’t so naive as to believe that he would be in that position -- slugging pitches over the fence for a contending team -- every year for the rest of his career.
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"I feel like I've always been kind of a sports-historian guy," Harper said before a game the other day in Cincinnati. "Not saying I know all about sports, but I think I follow pretty close. And all I could think about that year was Dan Marino getting there and never getting back, you know? I think you have to cherish those moments and know how hard it is as a team and as a group to get to that point."
If Harper sounds wistful, well, maybe it’s because he is, at least a little bit. The Phillies’ season -- his first with the team after signing a 13-year, $330 million contract -- is slipping away, little by little. It has been three years since Harper has been a full participant in a serious September playoff push, and with three weeks to go, it doesn’t seem as though his drought is going to end.
There are many reasons for that, none of which has much to do with Harper. Entering this weekend’s series in New York against the rival Mets, he was leading the Phillies with 10 homers, 26 runs batted in, five stolen bases, a .383 on-base percentage, and a .679 slugging percentage in the last 28 days.
He homered twice in both an 9-6 victory at San Francisco on Aug. 9 and an 11-1 rout of the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 14. One night later, his game-winning grand slam against the Cubs provided the most electric moment at Citizens Bank Park since at least 2011.
In a season that has occasionally been classified as a disappointment because of the enormity of his contract and the shoot-the-moon expectations attached to it, he has clinched the second 30-homer/100-RBI season of his career with a chance for more.
So, yes, Harper has mostly done his share.
"It's a season. That's why you play it out," he said. "The average [.255 through Thursday] and things like that aren't where I want them to be. But you play 162 games and water always rises to the level."
But while that’s often true for individual players, it isn’t always enough to lift the collective group. Not when a team that appeared to be short on pitching sees a regression from three of the young starters upon whom it had been counting (Zach Eflin, Vince Velasquez, and especially Nick Pivetta) and lacks the triple-A depth to make up for it. And not when that team sets a franchise record for home runs allowed, or goes 7-9 against the league-worst Miami Marlins, or drops nine games down the stretch to non-contenders.
Injuries can sink a team, too, and the Phillies have had more than their share. They lost left fielder Andrew McCutchen to a season-ending knee injury in June, a few days after center fielder Odubel Herrera got suspended for a domestic violence incident. Eight relievers have taken up residence on the injured list, many never to return. Veteran starter Jake Arrieta pitched through a bone spur for most of the season before finally shutting it down in August.
For all of those reasons, Harper has never taken for granted being involved in meaningful September games. He knows how quickly things can go sideways even in seasons that were filled with such promise.
Through his first five seasons, the Nationals alternated making and missing the playoffs. Regardless, Harper had mostly strong Septembers.
In 2014, he batted .319 with six homers and a .911 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his last 27 games and Washington stretched a seven-game lead in the division on Sept. 1 to a 10-game margin by season’s end.
In his MVP season of 2015, Harper batted .333 with 11 homers and a 1.216 OPS in his last 30 games, but the Nats were runners-up in the NL East, seven games behind the Atlanta Braves.
The Nationals had a big lead in the division in 2016 and won it despite a poor stretch drive from Harper (.210 average, .648 OPS, and one homer in his last 24 games). Then came 2017, when he missed most of September with a knee injury, and last season, when the underachieving Nationals struggled just to get over .500 late in the season.
"You kind of have to hit on all cylinders, not have injuries," Harper said. "Or if you do have injuries, guys have to come up and perform. You see that with the Yankees this year, doing what they're doing with how many guys they've had on the [IL]. We’ve definitely had some big-time injuries, but I think you can definitely learn from other organizations from that standpoint, understand what they do and how they do it.”
For now, Harper keeps stressing the heightened importance of the little things, such as getting runners over with less than two outs. He still believes in the Phillies’ talent and thinks that an offense led by him, catcher J.T. Realmuto, and first baseman Rhys Hoskins can power a pitching-short roster into October. And if they can do that, well, as Harper says, “anything can happen."
“You feel that weather change and feel the game change a little bit and really rely on the guys around you and hopefully grind all the way to the end,” Harper said. “For myself with the Nationals, I know we were unable to get past that first round, but just being able to go through it and get in year after year was a great experience. I can’t wait to go with these guys and do that as well.”