Bruce McClure, the membership ambassador for the Society for American Baseball Research, tweeted: “Why in the world did they insist on playing the [National League Championship Series] game in the pouring rain?” I had an answer immediately.
“Because,” I replied, “they wanted to see Bryce Harper drop every jaw in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the bottom of the eighth?”
“You win, good sir,” Mr. McClure answered.
Well, I didn’t win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies did. At this writing, it’s fair to say those $330 million dollars Phillies owner John Middleton agreed to pay Harper over thirteen years might have been bargain-basement rate. It’s also fair to say no timetable should be placed upon the finish of Philadelphia going berserk over this.
One and a half innings after the elements and the mound mud they formulated helped the Padres to an overthrow one-run lead, and with J.T. Realmuto on first after a leadoff single against Padres reliever Robert Suarez, Harper checked in with the elements receding just enough and hit the biggest home run of his major league life. It took a little hair-raising in the top of the ninth to make it stick, but stick it did, sending the Phillies to the World Series.
“I knew he’d come with his best pitch,” Harper told Fox Sports field reporter/Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci at one end of the dugout minutes after he ran it out. “I took the best swing I could. I just want to win this game.”
He’d just have to wait until the Phillies slithered out of a final Padres push in the ninth, when reliever David Robertson lost back-to-back one-out walks and gave way to Ranger Suárez, customarily a starter but also a lefthanded pitcher with a lefthanded batter due up.
Then Trent Grisham—a breakout star when the Padres slew the Mets’ dragon in the wild card series but almost a non-topic in this National League Championship Series—elected to try dragging a bunt for a base hit on Suárez’s first pitch. Neither he nor the Padres bargained on Suárez himself springing from the mound like a cat overdosing on Red Bull. Suárez threw him out at first almost in a blink.
The next man up was Austin Nola, the Padres’ catcher who hogged the headlines over the Padres’ lone NLCS win for starting the scoring with a base hit off brother Aaron on the mound for the Phillies. The only thing that might have made it sweeter if Big Brother Nola could land a hit now would have been if Little Brother Aaron was on the mound again.
But Little Brother was in the Phillies dugout on the same pins and cushions (thank you, Mrs. Ace) as his teammates until Big Brother skied Suárez’s first pitch to shallow right field, where Nick Castellanos ambled in, held off second baseman Juan Segura ambling out, and snapped the ball into his glove with the pennant attached.
Let the second guessing begin, mostly because it’s going to begin with or without any hint from me. The biggest one is probably going to be, thinking of the righthanded Robert Suarez staying in to face Harper the portside pulveriser, “Why the hell didn’t Bob Melvin bring Josh Hader in with Harper checking in at the plate?”
Reaching for the best bull in your pen when it’s shy of the ninth inning and your “save” situation is five minutes ago with a hard-mudslidden one-run lead isn’t just sound strategy, it’s absolutely mandatory. That’s smart baseball. Especially when your best just so happens to match ideally to their best and their best is due up next. Wasn’t that why the Padres dealt for Hader at the deadline, banking on the self-resurrection he’d make after leaving Milwaukee.
Of course it was. But just maybe Melvin just saw his Phillies counterpart do likewise with his best bull and get third-degree burned through no fault of either his or his man’s own. Melvin wasn’t going to let that happen to him or to his team. Mother Nature was being defiant enough all day long. And Harper had faced Robert Suarez in the eighth in Game Two, their only previous known confrontation—whacking into a double play.
The Padres mud-wrestled their way back from a 2-1 deficit in the seventh—Rhys Hoskins’s two-run bomb in the bottom of the third threatened to hold up otherwise despite Juan Solo’s solo satellite in the top of the fourth—because Phillies manager Rob Thomson’s reach for Seranthony Domínguez backfired under Mother Nature’s pouring.
The mound was muddy. The infield dirt was muddy. Both starting pitchers, Zack Wheeler for the Phillies and Yu Darvish for the Padres, had visible trouble keeping their landing feet from sliding more than a bare inch on the mudded mound downslope. Domínguez in the heavier rain had visible trouble holding and throwing his usually precise fastballs.
With Wheeler pushed out at the inning’s opening by Jake Cronenworth’s leadoff single, Domínguez fell behind 3-1 before throwing Josh Bell a fastball meaty enough to bang into right for an RBI double—after wild-pitching Cronenworth to second to make it simpler. After Domínguez looked to be finding a workable rain handle with back-to-back strikeouts, he threw two wild pitches while working to Grisham, enabling pinch-runner Jose Azocar to take third and score the Padres’ third run.
Grisham flied out to right for the side. Melvin surely appreciated having the lead handed to the Padres for the first and only time in the game. But seeing Thomson’s best-bull-forward move get thrown in the mud that dramatically must have put one thought in the back of his mind: We are not going to let that happen to us in this dreck.
Darvish surrendered an eighth inning-opening double to right to Bryson Stott, yielding to Robert Suarez. Suarez wrestled through the seventh unscathed. Hader was up and throwing in the Padres bullpen. But Realmuto began Suarez’s eighth-inning scathing by whacking an 0-2 pitch into left for a clean single. (As clean as the wet conditions allowed, of course.)
Still no sign of Hader. Suarez and Harper wrestled through two 1-2 foul balls to 2-2. The next pitch was a sinker hanging up in the outer middle region of the strike zone. Harper launched it parabolically, the opposite way, into the left field seats. Every occupant of Citizens Bank Park dared to believe it. The Phillies had just won the pennant. The top of the ninth would be a mere formality.
Not exactly, of course. It wasn’t easy for either team to get here in the first place, no matter how easy the Phillies made it look shoving the Cardinals and the Braves aside, no matter how easy the Padres made it look shoving the Mets and the Dodgers to one side.
Both teams had to hit the mid-season reset buttons. The Phillies had to get to the postseason in the first place almost despite losing Harper first to designated hitter-only duty after a shoulder injury and then for two months with a thumb fracture—on a pitch from the Padres’ Game Three starter Blake Snell, of all people.
It took Harper long enough to get anything resembling his groove back in the first place. The Phillies claimed the final National League wild card in the nick of time. Harper found his groove almost the moment the postseason began. Now he stands as the NLCS’s Most Valuable Player. The stupid money (Middleton’s term for his willingness to spend and invest in the team) looks absolutely Mensa now.
Harper’s hit five bombs all postseason long thus far and tied a franchise record for postseason for extra base hits. He’s hit a lot of indelible nukes in his career. Not even the ultimate grand slam he smashed against the Cubs a little over three years ago compares.
That one will become just a footnote to his career. Wherever the Phillies go from here, this one’s going to be cast in plutonium.