'M-V-P!': Harper wastes no time in return to Phils' dangerous lineup

August 27th, 2022

PHILADELPHIA -- The buzz around Citizens Bank Park on Friday started approximately 20 minutes before the first pitch of the Phillies' series opener against the Pirates when emerged from the home dugout and trotted to the right-field grass to warm up.

Those cheers became louder when Harper was introduced in the starting lineup, then turned into a raucous standing ovation when he stepped to the plate in the first inning -- with the bases loaded, no less -- for his first big league at-bat since breaking his left thumb on June 25.

“I started laughing because it was awesome,” Harper said. “I love those types of moments, I love those opportunities, I love jam-packed crowds and being able to play in front of 40,000 people. That's what it's all about.”

The Philadelphia faithful erupted with "M-V-P" chants moments later when Harper roped a ball through the right side of the infield for a two-run single to open the scoring in the Phillies' 7-4 win.

Harper's first-inning bases-loaded knock was an immediate reminder of what the club had been missing in their reigning NL MVP. He is slashing .356/.417/.746 (1.163) with runners in scoring position this season -- and that’s nothing new. In his four seasons with Philadelphia, Harper has a 1.049 OPS with runners on base -- good for the second-best mark in the Majors since 2019, trailing only Mike Trout (1.084 OPS).

At the same time, the rest of the first inning was a reminder of how the Phils went 32-20 in Harper's two-month absence. They sent all nine starters to the plate and forced Pirates starter Bryse Wilson to throw 43 pitches in the four-run opening frame. That continued a trend for a Phillies offense that ranked fourth across MLB in slugging percentage while Harper was sidelined.

“We need to keep going, we need to keep being great as a team,” Harper said. “I'm just trying to come in here and not screw it up since they're playing so well.”

Harper’s return only further lengthens that already dangerous lineup.

That depth was apparent by the fact that Nick Castellanos batted sixth on Friday night -- the lowest he’s been penciled into a starting lineup since Aug. 16, 2017, as a member of the Tigers. Meanwhile, Jean Segura was in the No. 8 hole for the first time since Aug. 29, 2015, with the Brewers.

“When you add length to your lineup, it's going to take a lot of pitches to get them out because they're going to grind on you and get baserunners, and consequently, you get runs,” Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson said. “There's not really a soft out in our lineup right now.”

Philadelphia’s potent offense could help offset the recent injuries to the pitching staff. That includes ace Zack Wheeler, who was scheduled to start Friday’s game until he was placed on the injured list on Thursday afternoon. It wasn’t until that move was made that was notified he’d be starting for the Phillies instead of Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he’d spent the week following Saturday’s impressive outing against the Mets.

That meant Falter had a front-row seat for Harper’s heroics during his rehab stint with Lehigh Valley (two homers on Tuesday and a walk-off double on Wednesday). Falter, who allowed three runs over six innings against the Pirates, then benefited from Harper’s offense this time around.

“Phenomenal,” Falter said. “It's always a pleasure watching that guy play.”

Though the early returns have been positive, Harper cautioned that it’s still going to be touch-and-go while he adjusts to playing everyday. After all, he hadn’t been sidelined for more than two weeks since 2017, when he missed a month and a half with the Nationals due to a hyperextended left knee.

Harper is also still adapting to the DH role since his right elbow will likely prevent him from returning to the outfield this season.

“The approach is going to evolve each day,” Harper said. “I've been out for two months, so it's going to take some time to get used to getting back in there and kind of getting back into the swing of things with DH'ing and understanding how my body is going to work and understanding what I'm going to feel like, because that's all kind of up in the air right now.”

Still, the Phillies finished the night with a hold on the second NL Wild Card spot and their MVP back in the lineup.

“It’s a good day to be a Phillie,” Rhys Hoskins said.