SAN FRANCISCO -- It was a move made purely as an attempt to awaken a snoozing offense. Nothing more, certainly nothing less.
But there was something symbolic about elevating Bryce Harper to the leadoff spot on Friday night. If the Phillies are going to shake loose from the bottleneck in the National League wild-card standings and make the playoffs for the first time since 2011, their $330 million superstar must lead the way.
Unfair? Probably. This is baseball, not the NBA, and one player doesn't usually carry a team to victories or postseason berths or championships. But when the Phillies made the biggest free-agent investment ever in Harper, they tied their fortunes to him, for better or worse, for 13 years.
It was perfect timing, then, that the Bryce Harper Show was in full effect here at Oracle Park. In danger of falling into fourth place in the division and dropping back in the wild-card chase, too, the Phillies were powered by two Harper home runs in a had-to-have-it 9-6 victory over the San Francisco Giants.
“I know that he probably hasn’t been doing as well as his expectations or a lot of people’s, but nights like tonight, he can bust out of it,” said pitcher Drew Smyly, the biggest beneficiary of Harper’s display of force. “He just wins the game. He puts the team on his back. And that’s what he did tonight.”
Harper’s second homer, a three-run splashdown into McCovey Cove beyond the right-field wall against tough Giants lefty Tony Watson, sparked a four-run seventh inning that brought the Phillies back from a 6-5 deficit. As he touched home plate, he clapped his hands together, shouted to nobody in particular and initiated his usual series of celebratory high-fives and handshakes with his waiting teammates.
But it was Harper’s reaction to his first homer that will draw most of the attention.
In the fifth inning, with the Phillies clutching a one-run lead and Smyly straining to make it hold up, Harper belted a solo homer over the center-field wall. Upon crossing the plate, he pressed his finger to his lips and shushed the crowd, which only incited the fans further, especially a group seated behind home plate that derided Harper for most of the game perhaps as a result of his bypassing the Giants’ 12-year, $310 million contract offer in February.
“There are things people say that people shouldn’t say and shouldn’t come out of their mouths,” said Harper, who hears a lot of things from a lot of fans but rarely reacts to it. “But that’s part of sports, I guess, and that’s part of fan bases. San Fran’s got a great fan base. They love their team, they love their city, so it’s a lot of fun going back and forth. It’s good.”
Be that as it may, Harper needs to have more nights like this, more times when he hoists up the Phillies and says, “C’mon, boys. Follow my lead.”
“[If] I’m just Bryce and I just do my thing, then we’ve got a chance,” Harper said.
“It’s always fun when you’re playing competitive baseball like that, kind of down the stretch August, September,” Harper continued. “We have an opportunity to win a division or win a wild card. It’s always fun.”
This was Harper’s 18th career multi-homer game and first as a member of the Phillies. His last came on May 14 of last season against now-teammate Nick Pivetta, making Harper the first player to have a multi-homer game against the Phillies one year and for them the next since Hall of Famer Chuck Klein in 1935-36.
Coincidentally, Harper was batting in the leadoff spot that May night for the Washington Nationals. When manager Gabe Kapler approached Harper before the game to ask if he would feel comfortable leading off, he might have envisioned this. But he certainly didn’t expect it.
“When the opposition brings in their left-handed pitcher to get your big left-handed hitter out and Bryce does damage like that, it’s a huge boost to the dugout, huge momentum shifter,” Kapler said. “This was a huge moment for our club, and we certainly rode Bryce to this victory.”
Actually, it was an unlikely catalyst who began a four-run rally in the third inning. Smyly, a former American League pitcher who had never before reached base in 11 career plate appearances, drew a six-pitch walk. Harper followed with a walk and struggling Rhys Hoskins singled to load the bases before they were cleared by a “monster,” in Kapler’s words, three-run triple from Corey Dickerson, who was dropped to the No. 3 spot.
“I was kind of joking to myself that we may have found our leadoff hitter in Drew Smyly,” Kapler said. “And there were some jokes in the dugout about the right guy being in the three-hole, too.”
But the Giants tied the game 5-5 in the sixth inning on Stephen Vogt’s two-run homer off Smyly, then grabbed the lead on an RBI single by Donovan Solano. The Phillies were at risk of dropping behind the St. Louis Cardinals and the blazing New York Mets, who had recorded a walk-off victory earlier in the night to cap their 14th win in 15 games.
Instead, Harper took matters into his own hands to keep the Phillies tied with those teams, a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the second wild-card spot.
“Every time he comes up, whether he’s struggling or having nights like tonight, I think everybody in the park expects him to do something great,” Smyly said. “You just always expect him to do something. It doesn’t surprise you.”