CLEVELAND -- For the longest time, the expectations for Bryce Harper's debut as an MLB first baseman were optimistic -- with qualifiers.
He’s a good athlete; he can figure it out. Obviously, there will be an adjustment period; you don’t learn a new position overnight. Mistakes are inevitable at the beginning; he’ll be perfectly fine in the long run.
But two games into the experiment of Harper at first base, a new reaction is starting to present itself: He might simply be good at this.
It started with Harper's acrobatic play on Friday night, tumbling over the fence in foul territory as he secured the out. And it grew further in an 8-5 victory in 10 innings against the Guardians at Progressive Field on Sunday afternoon, as Harper continued playing his new position without a hitch, making several key plays and displaying the instincts of a seasoned first baseman.
“He’s an athlete, and he’s a baseball player,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson. “He watches the game, he’s a student. … He looks like he’s been there before.”
Leading off the bottom of the fourth, Guardians first baseman Josh Bell ripped a sharp grounder that Harper snagged with a sprawl to his left. Perhaps more important than the stop, though, was what came next: Harper jumped to his feet and sprinted to first, beating Bell to the base by half a step.
Had Harper flipped to Aaron Nola, Bell might also have been retired, but knowing that he had time to make the play himself, Harper took the safer option.
“We’ve put in a lot of work,” Harper said. “Me and [infield coach Bobby Dickerson], every single day, just trying to play the best first base I can over there for the guys around me.”
It didn’t look like much more than an ordinary play -- until the top of the fifth, when the tables turned. Kyle Schwarber knocked a hard grounder to first, which Bell fielded. But unlike Harper, Bell hesitated for a split second before opting to flip the ball to left-handed reliever Sam Hentges covering the bag. Schwarber was called safe on a bang-bang play, and two batters later, Schwarber scored the tying run.
That wasn’t all for Harper’s defensive showcase. He ended the fourth inning with another diving stop to his left -- the kind of play that infielders make all the time, but outfielders rarely see -- and ended the fifth inning by leaping to snare a 93.9 mph line drive off the bat of Tyler Freeman before tagging Steven Kwan for an unassisted double play.
“[Harper] looks good out there, he really does,” Nola said. “He definitely has the energy to be out there at first base, and [he] wants to do well. You can see it in how he plays. He’s got a lot of pep in his step over there.”
Harper hasn’t yet secured a reputation as a Gold Glove first baseman, though. Leading off the bottom of the seventh, Harper had to leap for a high throw from third baseman Alec Bohm, and David Fry touched first base before Harper landed on the bag after catching the ball.
Perhaps 11-time Gold Glove winner Keith Hernandez could have made a spectacular play for the out -- but the error was Bohm’s, and Harper did make the catch and land directly on the base, doing all he could.
At the very least, two games in, Harper doesn’t look like someone struggling to learn a new position. He looks like a big league first baseman.
And at the plate, Harper still looks like a seven-time All-Star. Coming to bat with Schwarber on third in the top of the fifth, Harper chopped a grounder to first, driving home the tying run when Bell -- either because he couldn’t find the grip, or out of uncertainty as to whether the ball was fair -- momentarily hesitated before throwing home.
Harper came through again in the 10th, grounding a single up the middle to score Johan Rojas with the go-ahead run.
J.T. Realmuto and Bohm helped the Phillies score three more runs, and although Jeff Hoffman ran into trouble in the bottom of the inning, Yunior Marte came in and escaped a bases-loaded, no-out jam to earn the save.
“Anything I can do to help this team win any given night, wherever that may be on the field, I just try to play the best game possible,” Harper said. “That’s why they got me here, and that’s why I love being here.”