This is the stage Harper is meant to be on

October 21st, 2022

Up until now, had done everything except this. And now that he is here, finally playing games past his Oct. 16 birthday, he is reminding everybody all over again that his full-time job is still being a baseball star -- one of the biggest we have, and for a long time. Somehow, he just turned 30.

Harper was a phenom as a teenager. Eventually he became, along with Manny Machado -- whom he is now going up against in the National League Championship Series -- one of the youngest stars to ever hit the free agent market. He left the Nationals before they won their first World Series and went up to Philadelphia and won another MVP Award -- his second -- with the Phillies.

But it didn’t look as if he would get anywhere near this kind of stage, lights like these, when a pitch thrown by Blake Snell of the Padres broke Harper's hand at the end of June. Harper finally rejoined the season at the end of August. It took him awhile to find his swing after that, and his old form, the old excitement he has always brought to playing ball. It is safe to say that he has.

Harper has now played past the Division Series round for the first time in his career, and if he and his team have a really big weekend at home in Philly, he might be on his way to his first World Series, or at least knocking on the door.

He’s now played eight games in the postseason of 2022, and he’s hit four home runs with a batting average of .419. He has 13 hits in those eight games, and an OPS of 1.390. He put the Phillies on the board in their Game 1 win against the Padres before Kyle Schwarber did him one better and tried to hit a home run all the way out of southern California. In the biggest games Harper has ever played in his life, he’s at the top of his game.

“Sometimes when you’re that kind of phenom, when you’re as successful as he was at such a young age, you tend to burn out,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said. “Not Bryce. It’s so clear that he still wants to get better, that he’s still challenging himself. I love him.”

Dave Dombrowski inherited Harper when he became president of baseball operations with the Phillies. I asked him this week if he fully appreciated just how good Harper is before he took the job in Philadelphia.

“I always knew he was a great player,” Dombrowski said.  “However, do not think you ever appreciate the greatness until you see him play day in and day out.”

Harper injured his right elbow in April, and then came the broken hand that shut him down for those two months. Harper ended up missing 63 games in all during the regular season. Because of the injuries he became a full-time DH. After he rejoined the team in August, he hit only three home runs in his last 35 games. But he was the star who kept grinding in the cage to find himself. Then he did.

A lot of good things happened for the Phillies, of course, as they blew through the defending World Series champion Braves in the NLDS, beating them in four games. But Harper was the one to watch, as always. His OPS against the Braves was merely 1.592. No player in the history of the Phillies had ever done that in a postseason series. Finally Harper had made it past that round, and into baseball’s final four. Now he is looking to do more than that as the Phillies come home after a split of the first two games at Petco.

It was easy to lose sight of Harper in the NL East this season. There was the thought that the Phillies were through without him once he got hurt. But the team rallied without him. Harper came back. Here they all are, having upset the Cardinals in the Wild Card Series before they shocked the Braves the way they did.

Machado had an MVP-caliber season for the Padres. Everybody can look at the stars in the Yankees-Astros ALCS, starting with Aaron Judge. Judge is 30, just had an historic season with 62 home runs and will likely win his first MVP Award. Harper will still have one more than Judge does. And has been a star much longer.

“The most important thing is winning,” Harper said after his Game 1 homer against the Padres.

This is the best chance Harper has had to win it all, more than 10 years after making his debut in the big leagues with the Nationals at the age of 19, in April 2012. He always had to wonder how he would perform when he finally did have this kind of stage. Now we see. Bryce Harper, after all this time, is playing like a phenom all over again.