Harper acrobatic in first career start at 1B

July 22nd, 2023

CLEVELAND -- The new guy at first base saw the pop fly soaring into foul territory. He confidently tracked it as he ranged toward the photographer’s pit near the visitor’s dugout, then jumped at the wall to snare the ball as he fell into the pit. He raised his glove to show first-base umpire Gabe Morales the ball.

Out recorded, experiment rewarded. In only his third inning as a first baseman, had just proved himself a pretty darn good one.

The Phillies’ comeback bid might have come up short in a 6-5 loss to the Guardians in the opener of an Interleague set Friday night at Progressive Field. But let the record show they did notch a victory of a different sort. A longstanding designated hitter logjam is seemingly solved if Harper can acquit himself well at a new position, and that’s what he did early and often in this one.

“I feel very comfortable,” Harper said. “We’ve been working for a couple months now, and I feel normal going out there playing and slowing it down as best as possible and just playing good baseball.”

Harper’s acrobatic catch, ending with a hard crash to the concrete, was both thrilling and chilling for the Phils, who certainly can’t afford to see their star get hurt. There did not appear to be any concern about Harper’s condition afterward.

“I thought there was more netting there than there was,” Harper said.

This wasn’t just Harper’s first big league appearance at first base for more than one batter. It was his first appearance in the field since April 16, 2022. Ordinarily a right fielder, Harper had been limited to DH duties ever since he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

The universal DH saved the Phillies’ 2022 NL pennant season, allowing Harper to contribute offensively despite the elbow dilemma, and it also allowed Harper to come back quicker than expected from offseason Tommy John surgery.

But Kyle Schwarber, who started at DH on Friday, was not signed to play nearly as much outfield as he has the last two seasons, and Harper had volunteered to learn first base in the wake of Rhys Hoskins suffering a season-ending knee injury during Spring Training.

It's unusual, though not unprecedented, for a player of Harper’s caliber to make a mid-career position switch. The likes of Robin Yount (from shortstop to center field) and Craig Biggio (catcher to second base to the outfield and back to second) did it in the midst of their Hall of Fame careers.

“He’s a team guy,” Hoskins said. “It’s a need for the team, so he’s just trying to do what he can to put the team in the best position to win. You don’t normally see guys do this halfway through their career, let alone a future Hall of Famer.”

Harper was put to the test at first right away. In the bottom of the first, Guardians leadoff man Steven Kwan sent a bouncer Harper’s way, and Harper easily snared it and flipped it to pitcher Ranger Suárez for the out.

“They say the ball will always find you first play of the game,” manager Rob Thomson said. “He didn’t look out of place. He was kind of engaged with everything that was going on, and he knew where to be, for the most part.”

Thomson said the plan is to use Harper at first base roughly every other game, depending on how it goes and how his body responds.

Getting Harper back in the field -- albeit a different field position -- gives the Phillies needed flexibility in their lineup.

“If Bryce can move to first base, it allows us to free up the DH spot and put Kyle there a little bit more,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said recently, “and then, we have the ability to decide what we want to do in left field -- or the outfield, period.”

That has repercussions at the Trade Deadline, where the Phillies could be in the mix for an option like the Cubs’ Cody Bellinger.

So Harper, who went 1-for-4 with a walk in his debut as a first baseman and is now slashing .294/.388/.412 on the season, can help the Phillies with more than just his bat, which oddly has produced just one homer in the last 43 games. The new guy just might stick.