Everyone remembers Aug. 22 as the night when Bryce Harper put forth the bold – and now famously clairvoyant – goal for the struggling Phillies to “go on a streak and win nine out of 10” games.
But that was also the last night that Harper hit a home run.
Until Saturday, that is.
Harper slashed an opposite-field solo homer to left field in the third inning in Miami, part of a three-hit game for the star right fielder, who reached base five times in the Phillies' 12-6 victory over the Marlins.
“Felt something prior to the game, and it kind of clicked,” Harper said. “Watched some [video] as well prior to the game, and it felt right. I’ve got to take it into tomorrow. The last couple weeks, my team’s picked me up for sure. Everybody’s swinging the bat really well, and I was kind of just standing there."
Indeed, before took Marlins starter Jose Urena deep, it had been 83 plate appearances since his last homer, a first-inning shot against Braves lefty Robbie Erlin on Aug. 22. It wasn’t only Harper’s power that vanished either. After being arguably the best hitter in the National League for the season’s first month, he dragged an 8-for-60 (.133) rut into Saturday night’s game.
It’s enough to keep a slugger, not to mention his hitting coach, awake at night. But after seeing Harper snap an 0-for-18 schneid with a line-drive double Friday night, Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon said he was encouraged that an end to the struggle was near.
Dillon also postulated a theory for why Harper began struggling in the first place.
“One of the things that makes him so great is he’s one of the best competitors around, and when he’s not getting the results and he feels like he’s not helping the team with production, I think he pushes the issue and he expands the strike zone,” Dillon said Saturday. “I think it kind of compounded a little bit on him, where he’s trying to do too much.”
Makes sense. Think about it: After getting walked off in Atlanta on Aug. 22, the Phillies had a 9-13 record. Rhys Hoskins had not yet gotten hot at the plate. Ditto for Andrew McCutchen. The bullpen was a mess (some things don’t change). But Harper was batting .343 with seven homers and a 1.192 OPS, and if his comment about the urgency of winning nine of 10 games was any indication, he likely felt a responsibility to keep carrying the team.
Despite his recent funk, Harper has continued to draw walks (18 in his last 17 games) and get on base. But he has pleaded guilty to swinging at a few too many pitches out of the strike zone that he would ordinarily lay off.
Even when he’s going well, Harper rarely gets cheated with a big left-handed swing. But as Harper’s power drought has gotten longer, Dillon conceded his swing has become even more violent, causing his head to move and throwing off his timing.
“He’s trying to make things happen, and when you’re trying to make things happen, your swing can get a little big at times,” said Dillon, whose work with Harper dates to 2018 as assistant hitting coach for the Washington Nationals. “Your swing gets big and your barrel actually goes down and your decision-making goes down and it spirals a little bit on you.”
With his big game against the Marlins, the Phillies are hoping Harper’s problems are behind him.
“He’s close," Dillon said. "He’s had some better at-bats. I think he’s going to get going again.”
Utility player Scott Kingery (back spasms) was scheduled to play Saturday at the alternate site in Lehigh Valley but likely won’t rejoin the Phillies until they return home Tuesday. Same for center fielder Roman Quinn (concussion), who took batting practice for the first time in Lehigh Valley. ... Former Phillies top prospect Sixto Sanchez will start one of Sunday’s games for the Marlins. Zach Eflin will start one of the games for the Phillies, who have not named their other starter.