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Harper heating up: 'I have to play better'

@ToddZolecki
September 13, 2020

Bryce Harper might be heating up. Harper had been struggling for weeks, but he was a triple shy of the cycle and walked twice in Saturday night’s 12-6 victory over the Marlins at Marlins Park. It followed a two-out ground-rule double in the seventh inning in Game 2 of Friday’s

Bryce Harper might be heating up.

Harper had been struggling for weeks, but he was a triple shy of the cycle and walked twice in Saturday night’s 12-6 victory over the Marlins at Marlins Park. It followed a two-out ground-rule double in the seventh inning in Game 2 of Friday’s doubleheader.

Box score

Harper hit .343 with three doubles, one triple, seven home runs, 19 RBIs and a 1.192 OPS in 22 games through Aug. 22, but just .136 with two doubles, two RBIs and a .503 OPS in 18 games before Saturday.

“I’m gradually getting better,” said Harper, who went 3-for-4. “I’m taking my walks, things like that. But tonight I felt something prior to the game, and it kind of clicked. I watched some stuff as well and it felt right. I’ve got to take it into tomorrow. I think the last couple weeks my team has picked me up. We got a lot of great guys on this team and everybody is swinging the bat really well and I was just standing there.”

If the past two games are a sign that Harper is back, it is a welcomed return, especially with some injury concerns popping up.

Phillies right-hander Spencer Howard left the game in the fourth inning with stiffness in his right shoulder. He does not know if he will make his next start. Catcher J.T. Realmuto exited in the ninth because of hip discomfort. He will be evaluated before Sunday’s seven-inning doubleheader. Right-hander Zack Wheeler will not start Monday’s series finale as scheduled because the Phillies do not want him to lose the nail on his right middle finger after a freak incident late last week.

Harper can help the offense put up big numbers like Saturday, when Didi Gregorius' first-inning grand slam got things going.

“These guys have been cheering me on,” Harper said. “They want me to do my best. And of course I want to go out there and play to the best of my ability. The last couple weeks I haven’t done that, so I’ve been grinding, trying to get it back and get going. If we’re going to be successful as a team, as an organization, I have to play better. I mean, it’s plain and simple.”

It’s hard to put a finger on what had been causing Harper’s struggles. Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon said before the game that Harper might have been pressing and expanding the strike zone.

“I don’t care how talented you are, if you’re swinging at balls in this league, you’re not going to be very successful,” Dillon said.

Harper made more contact early in the season, with his strikeout rate through Aug. 22 significantly lower than last season's level. His strikeout rate during an 18-game slump entering Saturday hovered in the middle of those two poles.

His slugging percentage against breaking balls has plummeted since Aug. 22, although he hit a first-pitch slider in the eighth inning for a double on Saturday night, so there are possible promising developments there as well.

Was there some bad luck at play over this tough stretch? A little bit. Harper’s numbers were true through 22 games. His actual batting average, slugging percentage and wOBA were all close to the expected numbers, but the same categories’ actual vs. expected numbers were far wider in the previous 18 games, when Harper didn’t look sharp at the plate.

"When guys get off to slow starts like Rhys [Hoskins], everybody is panicked about Rhys the first two weeks and now look at him,” Dillon said. “Things are going to normalize. Whether they fully normalize or not because of the shortened season, I think Bryce the last couple games has been better. He’s a couple feet away from a couple homers.”

Harper got one homer Saturday. The Phillies hope for more. They will need them.

“Hopefully, Wheels can get healthy and get back out there,” Harper said. “And Howard can as well. We’re a positive team. We rely on each other, pick each other up. When guys get hurt, other guys have to come up and fill that void. I think we’re going to see some guys step up and do their job and get things done.

"If we want to make it and get deep in the playoffs, our pitching and our hitting have to be timely. You just have to be hitting on all cylinders. Our offense is going to score runs. We’re built that way. Hopefully we can keep going, keep grinding.”

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .