Harper flashes vintage self in two-homer performance

August 17th, 2023

TORONTO -- is giving himself grace.

Each day at the plate feels a little bit different for the Phillies’ slugger, who has worked on staying healthy as much as in any other aspect of his game this season. Embracing those conditions hasn’t always been easy, but it’s what’s allowed games like Wednesday night to happen.

Harper recorded his first multihomer game of the season in the Phillies’ 9-4 win over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, his pair of solo blasts paving the way for a much-needed offensive resurgence that gave the visitors a split of the two-game set in Toronto.

The power surge is coming a bit later in the season than usual, but not much about 2023 has been usual for Harper.

“Each night, I feel a little bit different,” said Harper. “Some days the arm feels good, some days it doesn’t. Sometimes I go up there and just don’t feel right. But I’d like to swing into August, September and October. So, [I’m] looking forward to, hopefully, tonight being kind of a stepping stone into the weekend. Hopefully [I can] just get out there and give myself some grace as well.”

That mentality has helped Harper through the tough moments, and it’s more than warranted, given how his season has shaped up.

The 30-year-old Harper didn’t play until May 2 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and it took him a bit to start looking like himself at the plate. The second half of the season came with a new challenge: the slugger moved to first base to solve a logjam at the DH position for the Phils.

Through bumps and bruises, he found his path. And if each night feels a bit different, Wednesday looked pretty close to vintage Harper.

“Everyone knows we’re gonna fight,” Harper said of the win in Toronto. “We’re gonna do what we can to keep the game close. … We were able to keep it close right there and get ahead when we needed to.”

The starting first baseman played a key role in that fight.

Harper’s first homer was a game-tying blast in the third inning off of American League Cy Young candidate Kevin Gausman. As manager Rob Thomson preached a patient approach against one of the best swing-and-miss hurlers in the league, Harper paired power with prowess to come away with the knock. He clobbered a 1-1 splitter at the bottom of the zone, sending it a Statcast-projected 412 feet to center field.

The Phillies picked up on that grind, stringing together quality at-bats all game long and making enough contact to pull ahead with a three-run fifth and a two-run sixth. It was a much-needed change of pace after a three-game skid that saw Philadelphia score just two runs in total.

“I really liked the at-bats,” said Thomson. “Harp had a multihomer game, [Jake] Cave with a solo shot. But we scored some runs in other ways [too]. … So, I really liked the way we played tonight.”

Harper’s second homer came in the ninth, long after the Phillies had taken the lead and chased Gausman out of the game. It was just as impressive as the first one, though. Facing a 1-2 count against reliever Bowden Francis, Harper switched to his two-strike approach at the plate, losing his leg stride to get all of a hanging curveball that left his bat at 107.6 mph.

“That was nice to see,” said Thomson. “I really believe in that [no-stride approach] for him. He keeps his head still and, obviously, he doesn’t lose any power.”

That pair of homers and a walk in the fifth brought Harper’s OPS to .998 in August, paired with a .302 average and nine RBIs. Those are the numbers you want from a guy who’s openly poised to swing into October.

“He’s a baseball [buff],” said Thomson. “He watches the game and studies it, he's asking a lot of questions and he's an athlete.”

More than another win on the Phils’ column -- which helped them raise their lead to 3 1/2 games atop the NL Wild Card race -- Wednesday’s offensive resurgence was a good reminder of what this lineup can do when it’s at its best.

It doesn’t have to start or end with Harper, but superstars have a way of shaping up a team’s identity.