CLEVELAND -- Bryce Harper stepped on home plate and made an “O-H” motion with his arms, a nod to his wife’s alma mater. This is Ohio State country after all, so Harper figured he would celebrate the way that the locals do, especially after the Buckeyes scored 76 points on Saturday.
Oh, and the gesture served as a helpful reminder, too, that results still matter to the Phillies.
They might need to complete a Hail Mary pass, to continue the football theme, but the Phillies remain mathematically alive for the last National League wild-card spot. You wouldn’t have known it, though, through the first 13 innings of this series here at Progressive Field, where it felt like the Cleveland Indians were the only team on the field that was in a playoff race.
Harper’s three-run homer changed all that. It came at the end of a nine-pitch at-bat in the fifth inning against Indians lefty reliever Oliver Perez and was the biggest blow in a 9-4 victory that assured the Phillies can’t be eliminated from the playoff race until at least Tuesday’s doubleheader in Washington.
“We win," manager Gabe Kapler said, “when Harper hits.”
Harper had help this time. The Phillies bashed a total of four homers, including two by left fielder Brad Miller, who earned a measure of revenge against the team that designated him for assignment in April. Jay Bruce also went deep, only his second hit in 36 at-bats since the All-Star break.
And then there was Jason Vargas, who offered up a rarity from the mound. Not only did he record his first victory in 10 starts for the Phillies, but the soft-tossing lefty worked into the seventh inning. It marked only the third time since the beginning of August that a Phillies starter other than Aaron Nola threw at least 100 pitches in a game.
Nevertheless, the Phillies’ flickering wild-card hopes got even dimmer. The Brewers won for the 14th time in 16 games, 10-1 over the dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates, and now any combination of four more Milwaukee wins or Phillies losses will knock the Phillies out of contention.
But the Phillies can still achieve other, albeit far more modest goals. If they finish 3-6 in their final nine games, they will have a winning record for the first time since 2011. They're also a half-game behind the New York Mets for third place.
Harper’s team-leading 33rd homer of the season came at the game’s most crucial moment. With the Phillies trailing, 4-2, runners on the corners and one out, Indians manager Terry Francona called on Perez, against whom Harper was 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in his career. Harper fouled off five pitches during the at-bat before hitting a slider out to right-center field to open a 5-4 lead.
“Golly, I mean, I can’t say that I’ve seen a more professional at-bat than the one Harper had against Perez right there,” Vargas said. “Any time you see an at-bat like that from your main guy, it’s just, he really didn’t give and he really made the effort to stay in the at-bat and do everything he could do to get his pitch and he really capitalized and made a difference for us.”
Even though it won’t get them into the postseason, Harper has made a tangible difference for the Phillies. He surpassed Lefty O’Doul for the third-most homers in his first season with the Phillies, and has Raul Ibanez (34 in 2009) in his sights. Harper won’t catch Jim Thome, who hit 47 homers in 2003.
“That nine-pitch at-bat felt determined to me, like he was determined not to fail," Kapler said. “He was determined to put the ball in play and put it in play hard. Harper has been tremendous in the second half of the season for us.”
When Harper hits, the Phillies win, right?
“Oh man, I think when guys hit in front of me, as well,” Harper said. “When you’re able to get up there with guys on base, that’s when you start winning ballgames. Solo shots don’t really win the game usually. I thought that was a good team win tonight.”
Vargas gave the Phillies what they have so obviously lacked -- and frankly, what they expected when they traded for him on July 29. He retired 14 of the last 16 batters that he faced. He struck out eight. He threw 100 pitches and went through the Indians’ order three times. It was his best start since at least his Phillies debut on Aug. 2, and given the stakes for the opponent, probably better than that.
But it didn’t start out particularly well. Shortstop Jean Segura and catcher J.T. Realmuto, both of whom made their return to the lineup after sitting out Friday night, committed throwing errors in the first inning and Vargas gave up three hits, including an RBI single by Franmil Reyes that registered an exit velocity of 107.8 mph, according to Statcast.
“He recognized that he had to buckle down for all of us,” Kapler said. “We definitely didn’t want to dip into our bullpen there in the third inning. We knew we were going to push him and push him hard. He felt that. He really stepped up in that moment for us.”
The Indians tacked on two runs in the second inning, too. The Phillies were in a 4-1 hole at that point, and it felt a lot like deja vu from Friday night.