For about five weeks now, Bryce Harper has awakened with lower back pain. Some mornings are tolerable, others more difficult to bear. Anyone with a bad back can sympathize.
But with the Phillies' playoff hopes starting to dim, Harper would have had an even tougher time coping with sitting out Wednesday night in Washington.
“We’re at the part of the season where I need to be on the field,” Harper said later. “Nobody wants to hear me complain.”
So Harper arrived at Nationals Park shortly after noon for a 6:05 p.m. game. He received treatment from the athletic training staff and told manager Joe Girardi that he could play, albeit as the designated hitter in the finale of a four-game series.
And then he slugged two home runs in a had-to-have-it 12-3 victory that left the Phillies a half-game behind the second-place Miami Marlins and one game behind the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants for the final wild-card spot.
“I think we needed it. I think he needed it,” Girardi said. “He got us off to a really good start in that game. It’s just so important to have his bat in the lineup.”
Harper set the tone in the first inning with a solo home run on a 94-mph sinker from Nationals starter Erick Fedde, his former teammate at Las Vegas High School. He took Fedde deep again on a curveball in the sixth inning to stretch the lead to 3-1. Harper also drew a pair of intentional walks.
Not bad considering he was “really hurting,” according to Girardi, after Tuesday’s doubleheader.
“Just got the treatment that I needed and kind of activated [his body] in a sequence just so I kind of stayed hot during the game,” Harper said. “Leading up to the game, getting into my workout, getting into the cage, and then getting right into the ballgame, I just got ready to the best of my ability.”
Looking back, Harper isn’t exactly sure how he injured his back but said it flared up at a time when he happened to be carrying the Phillies' offense on it.
Harper pointed to Aug. 21, when Girardi gave him a night off in the opener of a series in Atlanta, as the origin of his back pain. At the time, he was batting .338 with six homers and a 1.147 OPS in 86 plate appearances. Since then, he’s hitting .205 with seven homers and an .819 OPS in 145 plate appearances.
“I’ve just tried to play through it,” Harper said, noting that it has been more difficult during a stretch of 31 games in 27 days, including five doubleheaders in 15 days.
The good news for Harper is that his back will get better with rest. The bad news is that he will have to grit his teeth through three games at Tampa Bay because the Phillies' quest to snap an eight-season playoff drought will almost certainly go down to the wire.
Harper conceded that it might help if he continues to be the DH this weekend against the Rays. He didn’t look comfortable in right field Tuesday when the Phillies got swept in a doubleheader. He didn’t come up throwing to the plate on a softly hit RBI single and struggled to dig out a couple of balls that were hit into the right-field corner.
“If DHing gets me two home runs a night, I think we can take that," Harper said. "I know that’s not going to happen every night. But I felt probably the best I’ve felt just being able to stay off my feet.”
Hey, whatever it takes.
“He was really hurting [Tuesday] night, but he wanted to play, and we talked about it," Girardi said. "Just got to manage it, and he did a great job of doing that. We need him.”