Baseball

Phillies’ Bryce Harper Closes In on His Second M.V.P.

PHILADELPHIA — With the Philadelphia Phillies clinging to their playoff hopes and a one-run lead within the eighth inning on Wednesday night time, the second fell, in fact, to the very best participant on the crew, the one who had helped carry them this far.

When Pat Valaika of the Baltimore Orioles stroked a single onto the outfield grass and Pedro Severino rumbled towards house from second base, Phillies proper fielder Bryce Harper scooped up the ball and fired a no-bounce throw to catcher J.T. Realmuto to chop down the potential game-tying run.

The followers in attendance at Residents Financial institution Park chanted one thing that felt becoming for a famous person whose torrid second half has saved his crew afloat and has maybe thrust him close to the highest of the race for a sure end-of-year award he has gained as soon as earlier than: “M.V.P.! M.V.P.!”

“He threw an absolute rocket to house plate,” Phillies first baseman Matt Vierling stated after the 4-3 win. “It was an enormous play, a clutch play by him. He’s a clutch participant.”

For thus lengthy this season, the Nationwide League Most Precious Participant Award appeared earmarked for Fernando Tatis Jr., the famous person shortstop of the as soon as thrilling San Diego Padres. Tatis may nonetheless declare the prize due to his spectacular season general — a .285 batting common, .988 on-base-plus-slugging share, 40 house runs, 25 stolen bases and 94 runs batted in. However as the Padres have faded out of the postseason race, Tatis’s play has been characterised by accidents, inconsistent manufacturing and a dugout argument.

From the beginning of August by Thursday, he hit .269, with a .901 O.P.S., 9 house runs and 24 R.B.I. in 33 video games. He missed 13 video games final month due to {a partially} dislocated left shoulder.

In that very same span, Harper has produced video-game-like numbers: a .341 common, 17 house runs, 42 R.B.I. and an M.L.B.-best 1.238 O.P.S. in 49 video games by Thursday. (Solely Kansas Metropolis Royals catcher Salvador Perez, with 20, has extra house runs in the identical interval.) Together with Thursday’s recreation, Harper has performed in 63 straight video games since July 17, weathering nicks and bruises and fatigue to be on the sphere daily for his Phillies (79-74) because the crew sat two video games behind the Atlanta Braves within the N.L. East with 9 video games left.

“I simply acquired to maintain going,” he stated earlier this month. “That’s what this group expects. That’s what these followers count on as nicely. Irrespective of who’s on the mound or how I’m feeling, I acquired to maintain posting daily.”

Harper’s surge has despatched him taking pictures up the M.L.B. leaderboards for the season: .312 common (sixth), 33 house runs and a 1.050 O.P.S. (first).

“You understand folks say that they’re on hearth they usually’re sizzling for like per week or a few weeks in the past,” stated the Phillies’ first base coach, Paco Figueroa, who additionally oversees the outfield and base operating in instruction. “He’s been sizzling since concerning the All-Star break. And it’s spectacular to observe. Each single pitch, everybody’s staring.”

Whereas the A.L. M.V.P. race seems to be between the Los Angeles Angels pitcher and hitter extraordinaire Shohei Ohtani, who has been the favourite for a lot of this season, and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who leads the A.L. in lots of offensive classes, the N.L. race feels far murkier.

Some advanced statistics place Harper as the very best hitter within the N.L., adopted by proper fielder Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals (.325 common and 1.029 O.P.S.) after which Tatis. But when their complete our bodies of labor are considered, Tatis performs a extra demanding place within the area and is a greater base runner.

“There’s plenty of actually good gamers within the Nationwide League, and I’m not saying something towards them, however I simply get an opportunity to see what he does daily, and that’s a bonus for me,” Phillies Supervisor Joe Girardi stated of Harper, whom he known as the very best participant he had seen within the N.L. this season. “The walks, the bottom operating, the protection, what he’s been in a position to do every day — so I’m a bit of partial.”

Labeled a prodigy since he was on the quilt of Sports activities Illustrated at 16, Harper was the N.L. rookie of the yr in 2012 with the Washington Nationals and was named M.V.P. in 2015, when he produced some of the spectacular offensive seasons in M.L.B. historical past: a .330 common with 42 house runs and a 1.109 O.P.S., with 9.7 wins above alternative. At 22, he was the youngest unanimous M.V.P. in baseball historical past.

Since then, Harper has flirted with comparable brilliance however has been slowed by accidents or inconsistencies. In 2019, the primary yr of his 13-year, $330 million cope with the Phillies, Harper hit .260 with an .882 O.P.S. and 35 house runs — robust manufacturing for many, however disappointing in gentle of the excessive bar set by his expertise. This season, although, Harper, 28, has reminded those that had forgotten that he stays one of many easiest hitters in baseball.

“Expectations are so excessive for him, so when he doesn’t have the tremendous elite seasons like he’s having this yr, you overlook it a bit of bit,” stated the Phillies’ hitting coach, Joe Dillon, who was the Nationals’ assistant hitting coach throughout Harper’s closing season in Washington, in 2018.

Dillon added later: “He’s been on a pair months’ run the place he’s been nearly as good as anyone, however you’re nonetheless not in awe of it for no matter cause, which isn’t honest to him. However that’s simply expectations which have been round him. It takes a second to look again at what he’s doing to comprehend how particular it’s.”

Improved well being has helped Harper’s protection and hitting, his coaches stated. In keeping with Dillon, Harper has used the decrease half of his physique higher this season versus final, when he was coping with a again harm for a lot of the pandemic-shortened 60-game season. Nonetheless, Harper hit .268 with 13 house runs, a .962 O.P.S. and led baseball with 49 walks — a dependable talent empowered by his sharp eye on the plate.

This season, Harper has overcome lingering again discomfort, a sore left wrist, getting hit within the face with a pitch and a bruised left forearm to play in 132 of the Phillies’ 153 video games. (Tatis has performed in 120 of the Padres’ 152.)

One in all Harper’s largest areas of enchancment from previous seasons: his manufacturing towards off-speed pitches, which, in response to Dillon, was proof that Harper has remained constantly underneath management together with his violent left-handed swing quite than making an attempt too laborious. Towards these pitches by Thursday, Harper was hitting .325 this season — his highest mark since his M.V.P. season.

Towards the Orioles on Tuesday, Baltimore Supervisor Brandon Hyde confirmed Harper the final word signal of respect throughout a recreation, a transfer routinely used towards the slugger Barry Bonds in his prime: He deliberately walked Harper, the go-ahead run, in additional innings. Realmuto tripled to drive within the tying run and Harper, who scored from first to win the sport, 3-2.

Harper has talked little about his success this season. He has stated he’ll reply any questions on his season on the finish, when he can sit down to take a look at his numbers to determine how and the place he can enhance. Not too long ago, he was unavailable for remark as he has caught to a plan that has labored nicely for him: getting ready for video games within the indoor batting cages quite the normal on-field batting observe.

Requested concerning the “M.V.P.!” chants he prompted after a Sept. 16 win wherein he drove in 4 runs, Harper stated it felt good to obtain such a reception from followers however that he was extra centered on the remaining weeks within the common season.

All through the season, he stated he didn’t let anybody in his life present him his statistics — not his spouse, Kayla, or his father — his unofficial coach — or Girardi. He stated his buddies knew to not textual content him about that. He stated that if he had been to see his numbers someplace, resembling on Instagram, he would flush them shortly out of his thoughts.

“I do know it’s type of loopy and it doesn’t make sense,” Harper stated not too long ago. “However I don’t like M.V.P. discuss. I don’t such as you my numbers. I don’t like wanting the place I’m at or the place I’m within the second half or something like that. I simply wish to play my recreation. I simply wish to present up each night time, ensure that I’m taking part in proper area, batting third and serving to this crew win.”

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