After striking out with the bases loaded in the seventh inning Sunday, Bryce Harper returned to the dugout, got bench coach Rob Thomson’s attention, pointed to his left hip area, and headed for the clubhouse, not to return.
Compared to that visual — and what it could mean — a loss in the midst of a jam-packed playoff race qualified as nothing-to-see-here.
The Phillies did lose, 6-3, in the last home game at Citizens Bank Park, despite a passable start from Adonis Medina in his major-league debut and three errors committed by the Toronto Blue Jays. They leave town for a season-ending seven-game road trip with a half-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants for a National League wild-card berth.
But Harper pulled himself from the game because of what manager Joe Girardi characterized as “lower back stiffness.” Girardi couldn’t say when it occurred or how severe it is, and Harper wasn’t made available for questions after the game.
One thing is clear, though: Losing Harper for any amount of time would be a blow to the Phillies' chances of ending an eight-year playoff drought, especially at a time when catcher J.T. Realmuto is out with a hip flexor strain, first baseman Rhys Hoskins is holding his breath that he won’t need elbow surgery, and two-fifths of the starting rotation (Jake Arrieta and Spencer Howard) is injured.
“I think it’s something he’s dealt with this year from time to time,” Girardi said. “Nothing that has limited him in a sense to where we couldn’t play him. Once you have a back issue, it seems like you never, ever get rid of it completely.”
The next few days, then, figure to be about treatment and pain management. Girardi said the athletic training staff likely would work with Harper on Sunday night before the Phillies bussed to Washington and again Monday before the opener of a four-game series at Nationals Park.
“We’ll see how he is [Monday] and we’ll see if he’s available for me,” Girardi said. “He’ll get a lot of treatment and we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
Harper is just starting to hit again, too. After carrying the offense for most of the season’s first month, then falling into a three-week funk, he went into Sunday’s game with seven hits in 13 at-bats, including three home runs. Despite going 0-for-4 Sunday, he’s tied with Realmuto for the team-lead with 11 homers and has a .927 OPS.
Phil Gosselin replaced Harper in right field in the top of the eighth inning. Harper swung through a 95-mph fastball to end an eight-pitch at-bat in the seventh against Blue Jays reliever Thomas Hatch. He also appeared to stretch, perhaps to loosen his back, after chasing after Bo Bichette’s triple off the top of the right-field wall in the top of the seventh.
“I just knew that it tightened up and he let us know after the at-bat,” Girardi said.
Bichette’s drive preceded Teoscar Hernandez’s two-run homer and widened the Blue Jays' lead against beleaguered reliever Heath Hembree, who entered a 2-1 game in the sixth inning and gave up two runs in both the sixth and seventh.
The Phillies acquired Hembree and Brandon Workman in an Aug. 21 trade with the Boston Red Sox to help stabilize the bullpen. But Hembree has a 12.54 ERA in 11 appearances, while Workman has a 6.39 ERA in 13 games.
All things considered, Medina acquitted himself well.
Stepping into the rotation spot vacated last week when Arrieta strained his right hamstring, the 23-year-old right-hander overcame both first-start jitters and early inefficiency to complete four innings. He gave up three hits, none of which left the infield without deflecting off a glove. He also allowed one of two first-inning runs on a balk.
“Definitely at first I was nervous,” Medina said. “But afterwards I felt much better and I was able to throw the ball well.”
Indeed, Medina settled after escaping a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the second inning. He retired the side in order in the third and fourth, but with his pitch count rising to 84, he didn’t get a chance to face the top of the Blue Jays' order for a third time.
“You can’t ever say, ‘If this doesn’t happen, everything that happened after that is going to happen,’ but if he doesn’t balk, he probably gets out of the inning," Girardi said. “His stuff got better as the day went on. I thought he did pretty good, actually.”
Because the Phillies are off Thursday, Arrieta’s spot in the rotation won’t come up again before the end of the regular season. Arrieta isn’t expected to return until at least the playoffs. Just in case, the Phillies put Medina on the 40-man roster that will be eligible for the postseason — assuming, of course, that they qualify.
Without Harper, that would seem to be in greater question.