Harper’s return to elite form has Phils thriving

September 19th, 2021

This is what we have been reminded of this season: Bryce Harper, when healthy, is still great, whether he wins the National League MVP Award or not. He is still great and still a baseball star. This is why the Phillies wanted him. This is why the Yankees should have waited for him. And maybe the most amazing stat of all with Harper, as he posts serious numbers up and down his own stat line, is this:

He doesn’t turn 29 until next month.

Harper got hit in the face by a pitch in St. Louis in late April and the ball ended up ricocheting and injuring his left wrist. The moment altered his early season more than somewhat, even as he tried to play through a sore wrist when he was back on the field. Now, though, Harper is all the way back. And looking every bit the best player in the league.

So much attention for Shohei Ohtani this season, and rightfully so. So much attention for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is still chasing a Triple Crown in the American League. So much attention for Fernando Tatis Jr., who might be Harper’s strongest competition for the NL MVP Award. But Harper is finishing as strong and hot as anybody.

Harper had a single and two-run double that broke open Saturday night’s win over the Mets. He also walked. So he continued the tear he has been on for a month. Here is some very good stuff on him from John Labombarda of the Elias Sports Bureau, which knows just about everything:

Harper is now third in the NL in batting average, at .315. Second in on-base percentage, at .429. First in slugging, at .627 and first in OPS at 1.056. He’s tied for fourth in runs scored, tied for first in total bases, second in doubles, tied for fourth in home runs, with 33, while being second in walks and first in extra-base hits, with 72.

Harper is without question the single most important reason the Phillies woke up this morning one game behind the Braves in the NL East standings. He has put them on his back. You want to know why the Phillies paid him all that money when he left the Nationals? This is why, because they believed he could play this way with the money on the table.

“I don’t like MVP talk,” Harper said. “I don’t like talking about my numbers … I just want to play my game.”

We have spent the last year and a half talking about other young stars besides Ohtani and Vlad Jr. and Tatis Jr. We saw Mookie Betts go to Los Angeles and get paid his own Harper-like money, and then win another World Series for himself as the Dodgers won their first Fall Classic since 1988. It’s not that the spotlight forgot Harper. It just moved away from him, as the Phillies continued to miss the postseason.

But he is still a total star. Still great. Not yet 30.

Dave Dombrowski is now the baseball boss in Philadelphia. I asked him Saturday what he has seen from Harper across the first 150 games of the season. It’s fair to assume that Dombrowski -- who has a history of landing big free agents -- would have done whatever it took to sign Harper if he’d gotten the chance.

“He has been outstanding,” Dombrowski said. “The second half of the season he has carried us offensively. His numbers would have been even bigger this season if he did not have that hit by pitch episode in St. Louis. He was off to a great start, and, his hand bothered him for quite a while afterwards. However, he continued to play and battle through the injury.

“He is worth the price of admission to watch," said Dombrowski.

Harper is all of that. It became some kind of sidebar to the 2019 season, just because of the way the Phillies faded, that Harper had 35 homers and 114 RBIs in his first season in Philly. Last year he hit 13 homers in 58 games, and knocked in 33 runs. Now he comes on the way he does in August and September. There are other players finishing big, in other races. No one right now is doing more for his team than Harper is doing for the Phillies, who aren’t close to a division title or Wild Card without Harper doing what he’s been doing.

Somehow this is his 10th season in the big leagues. One MVP Award in the books. Maybe looking at another.

“It's been a show for quite a while here,” his manager Joe Girardi said the other day.

Then Girardi added, “It’s not the MVP of the playoffs. It’s the MVP of the season. And I think he’s earning it.”

Harper is playing the game the way he has always played it at his best, with power and flair and a sense of the moment. At a time in the season when the Phillies have faded in the past, Harper hasn’t allowed it this season. He has accepted the responsibility of his contract, has lifted his game, lifted his team to within one game of first with two weeks to go. It’s what MVPs do. Especially at this time of year in baseball.