Bryce Harper tapped his right hand against his chest Thursday night and wondered why his heart was not thumping as he stood on-deck in the ninth inning. The bases were loaded, the Phillies were rallying, the Cubs were calling on their third pitcher of the inning, and Citizens Bank Park was being swept into a frenzy.
But there was Harper, standing in the center of it all, trying to find his heartbeat.
“Why am I not jittery? Why am I not excited,” he asked himself.
Harper, with the game on the line, was the calmest person in the ballpark. There was no adrenaline or nerves. It was the ninth inning of an August game in the midst of a playoff race, but it could have felt like the first inning of a spring-training game.
Maybe that’s how Harper needed to feel to crush a towering grand slam into the second deck and give the Phillies an incredible 7-5 walk-off win and sweep of the Cubs.
They entered the ninth inning down four runs, but ended it waiting for Harper at home plate. They completed their first sweep in seven weeks and stayed in the hunt for one of the National League’s wild-card berths as the Padres come to town.
Harper smoked a sinker off Cubs reliever Derek Holland, watched for a moment to make sure the hit stayed fair, and took off around the bases.
“I love those moments. I love those opportunities,” Harper said. “I think it helped a lot from a young age, going through those emotions and having those opportunities at 8, 9, 10 years old in big-time games and going to different states and cities and playing for different teams with guys who I didn’t know with expectations and things like that. I just love it.”
The lefthanded Holland, who was brought in to face Harper, had not allowed a homer to a lefthanded hitter in two years. The Cubs, according to STATS Inc, had won 489-straight games when leading by four runs in the ninth inning. Harper, with one huge swing, took care of it. His heart was finally racing and so was he. It was his second-straight game with a homer and his fifth in the last six days. But this was no home-run trot, it was a sprint.
“Being able to hit a walkoff homer like that is that you live for. That’s what you want to do as a team, as an organization,” Harper said. “I was just so excited to get back with the boys at home plate. Everybody was going nuts. I was trying to get there as quick as possible to celebrate.”
Manager Gabe Kapler said the night was the best win and “the most energizing” of the season. And that’s because it felt so unlikely for most of the night. It will be be remembered as their most important of the season if it powers them towards October. The Phillies completed their first sweep of at least three games in seven weeks and set themselves up for a weekend series against a Padres team they should handle.
“That's why you sign one of the best players in baseball. That's why you spend so much time and energy trying to get him to come to Philadelphia,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “But Bryce ultimately deserves all the credit for having ice water in his veins in that moment and staying relaxed. One of the things we've talked about is staying loose and relaxed and confident.”
The Phillies began the week by firing their hitting coach, they returned Charlie Manuel to the dugout, and then won the first two games of the series against a tough Cubs team. They wore hunting-themed hats in the clubhouse and took batting practice in J.T. Realmuto t-shirts. The Phillies, after a disappointing west-coast trip that seemed to test their season, were not folding. They were loose.
But the momentum felt on Tuesday and Wednesday seemed ready to be wasted on Thursday when the Phillies were stifled for seven innings against Yu Darvish. The entire Phillies dugout - from Rhys Hoskins to Harper to Gabe Kapler - were happy to see Darvish leave after 92 pitches. The Cubs bullpen provided some hope.
Two innings later, Harper was throwing his helmet at home plate and roaring at his teammates. He bear hugged Manuel, pushed Brad Miller, and apologized to Realmuto for throwing his helmet at him. It’s hard to stay calm after hitting a ball 413 feet.
“Anybody that watches baseball expects him to do something like that every time he gets up to the plate,” said Drew Smyly, who allowed five runs in five innings. “But when he came up, bases loaded, him in the box, one out, I know us in here we just felt it. Like he was going to do it. He’s hot right now. It’s really fun to watch him play every day. He’s an incredible player.”
“They expect him to do that, you know? That’s why they brought in the lefty They were trying to play the matchup. It doesn’t matter. He’s that good. He’s really that good.”
The ninth inning started with an out. But then the Phillies sent five batters to the plate without recording another out. Rhys Hoskins loaded the base by being hit by a pitch on the hand. X-Rays after the game were negative and Hoskins said he had so much adrenaline from the finish that he didn’t feel any pain.
That brought up Harper. A moment - the one the Phillies have seemed to be waiting for all season - felt near. And Harper was calm and ready.