CLEARWATER, Fla. — The crowd that gathered Wednesday morning peered to the sky as the baseball towered over Spectrum Field, the victim of a majestic Bryce Harper swing. The home run cleared the wall in right, soared over the grass berm, and went past the concourse before leaving the ballpark.
This — an up-close encounter of Harper — was why the crowd had gathered.
“Alright,” Andrew McCutchen shouted to the team’s new $330 million superstar. “You can stay around.”
Harper, facing live pitching for the first time since last season, took just a handful of swings in a simulated game against Jerad Eickhoff. He will play another simulated game on Thursday before making his Grapefruit League debut on Saturday as the designated hitter.
Those few swings on Wednesday were enough as Harper mashed a curveball with such authority that its hangtime to right field provided enough time to dream about what Harper could do this season in 81 home games at Citizens Bank Park, which has the same hitter-friendly dimensions as Spectrum Field.
Harper, in 50 games with the Nationals, hit more homers (14) at Citizens Bank Park than he did at any other visiting stadium. His .930 OPS in South Philly is the fourth highest in the 15-year history of the ballpark among all players — Phillies and visitors — who have played at least 50 games at CBP.
The Phillies have not had a lefthanded hitter hit 30 homers since Ryan Howard in 2011 as they have failed to take advantage of the 330-foot wall in right field. Of his career homers, 60 percent have been to right field.
“It’s a great ballpark to hit in,” Harper said. “It’s one of the smaller ballparks. I think I see the ball there very, very well, but also it’s just being comfortable and having good at-bats and not trying to do too much. Philly and Cincinnati are very similar in that instance where you’re sitting there and it’s a smaller ballpark but you’ve got to have the approach to not really try to do too much and just hit the barrel with the ball and go from there. If you just calm down and have good swings, have good approaches, have good at-bats hopefully have a good season as well.”
Harper, just like Jim Thome and Ryan Howard, seems to be built to hit at Citizens Bank Park. If you’re sitting in right field this summer, beware.
“One of the things we know about Harper is that he can hit the ball out of the ballpark anywhere,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “And our ballpark plays hitter-friendly, especially during the summer, in the middle of the field, as well. I can easily recall balls that were 20, 30, 40 feet beyond the center-field wall that he squared up in D.C. and I think we can all imagine what those balls can do at CBP.”
Eickhoff, who is working his way back from surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome, was told after the session by pitching coach Chris Young that Harper was sitting on a first-pitch curveball. He has faced Harper 12 times over the past three seasons and has had modest success. The curveball, Eickhoff said, had excellent spin. He attacked him during his four at-bats on Wednesday morning just like he did in the past. The homer, Eickhoff said, was “a tip-your-cap-kind of thing.”
“Yeah, it was pretty impressive,” Eickhoff said. “I wasn’t too happy about it, but yeah.”