FOX Sports MLB Analyst
PHILADELPHIA – Another night of pandemonium at the center of the baseball universe.
You know the story now. The Philadelphia Phillies, a club that four months ago was kneeling in quicksand, sinking deeper than the day under the weight of $242 million of expectations, won a postseason baseball game. Again. One more magical night in a month full of them.
Bryce Harper hits a home run. So did four of his friends. Ranger starting pitcher Suárez was brilliant. The 45,712 in Philadelphia’s first World Series home game since 2009 were predictably wild, louder than a rock show.
And so, the rock stars in red pinstripes crowd-surfed their way to an emphatic 7-0 victory over the Astros. The Phillies are now two wins away from a most unlikely championship.
But this journey of joy, this electrifying October, almost did not happen. In another year all this beautiful blur would have been nothing more than a dream.
And that’s because the most crucial part of this team isn’t Zack Wheeler or Kyle Schwarber or JT Realmuto or even Harper, whose nightly wonders continue to blow your mind. No, you see, all these *wild gestures* was made possible only by the adoption of the National League Designated Hitter – the real MVP of the Philadelphia Phillies 2022.
Bryce Harper hits a two-run homer in the first
Bryce Harper hits a two-run home run to give Philadelphia a 2-0 lead heading into Game 3 of the World Series. The Phillies won 7-0.
Back in mid-April, Bryce Harper felt a sting in his right elbow.
It’s not a good feeling for anyone, especially not for a ball player. Fortunately, the Phillies superstar could still swing a bat without too much discomfort. Launching was a different matter.
As the team’s right fielder, throwing a baseball with power and purpose was a key part of Harper’s daily responsibilities. And for the first time in his career, the man who once hit 96 mph as a 16-year-old could not throw without significant pain in his dominant arm.
The short-term plan: Harper rests his right arm, avoiding all pitchers while continuing to hit the middle of Philadelphia’s lineup at DH. The club will reassess in a few weeks. It all started on April 17, just nine games into the season. Then, the re-evaluation a fortnight later brought more sad news: Harper’s problem, initially diagnosed as a strain, was revealed to be a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.
For pitchers, that’s terrible news; Tommy John surgery, after 12-18 months of recovery. The timeline for hitters is less dire, somewhere in the five to seven month range, but it’s still disastrous enough to require months on the shelf and completely alter the trajectory of a season. Surgery on Harper’s torn elbow would mean the season was over — for him, and most likely for the Phillies as well.
But he could still hit like Bryce Harper, so they DH him. That keeps his bat as a factor, something that would have been impossible a year earlier.
As part of the new CBA agreed in advance in March 2022, National League teams will be allowed, for the first time in history, the 2020 season of COVID-19, a designated hitter. After more than a century of NL pitchers coming to the plate to pitch helplessly or bunt, they could finally spend their offensive innings elsewhere.
Almost immediately, National League teams began rebuilding their rosters in the image of their Junior Circuit counterparts. Not everyone loved their new reality.
“Honestly, I’m not really a fan.” Nick Castellanos shared after Game 3. “My favorite thing about the National League was the skill it took to manage and the strategy aspect that came with it. [the DH in the NL] it was really important to keep the purity of baseball alive”
The ironic part is that Castellanos, statistically considered a subpar outfield defender (October heroes aside), almost certainly earned an extra chunk of change this past offseason just because of the DH. The Phillies dropped five years and $100 million on Castellanos in part because they plan to cycle him and fellow free agent Kyle Schwarber through the designated hitter spot.
Without the DH, the Phillies certainly don’t get both players, and maybe they won’t.
“We probably wouldn’t have been able to sign Schwarber and Castellanos both.” Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski acknowledged on a recent episode of the Baseball Bar-B-Cast podcast. “No way we did it because we didn’t have room to play both.”
Even with the advent of the NL DH, many jokes have been made online regarding Philadelphia’s potentially abysmal defense. What did they expect to happen? The club added two defensively limited sluggers to an already defensively lopsided roster within two days of each other. Even some of the Phillies players wondered where everyone would fit in the field.
“When we both stopped [Schwarber and Castellanos]”, rookie shortstop Bryson Stott told FOX Sports. “I honestly think we’re going to play Bryce in center field. But then I’m like ‘ehhh no. No way.'”
Stott is right. Harper hasn’t pitched a single inning in center in 21 and has just three starts as a Phillie. When he joined the organization before the 2019 season, Harper made it clear that he wanted to avoid the pastures of center field if possible. John Fogerty, eat your heart out. As Stott, his spring training teammate and longtime friend, said: It was never going to happen.
Still, an unexpected positive rooting came calling in the face of the Phillies. At first, the transition to DH was difficult for Harper, who started just twice during his seven-year stint in D.C. And despite his mercurial defensive play, Harper still prides himself on his outfield play since the Nats they told him to put the game down. aside from the catcher’s gear.
Perhaps one day, in the twilight of his career, Harper could be forced to a more docile way of life, of course. But having turned 30 in October, Harper clearly wishes he could still contribute on both sides of the ball and believes his old defensive responsibilities will allow him to maintain better focus throughout the game.
“It’s been a grind for me.” Harper revealed in early May about his new role. “Just worry about hitting all day, instead of going out there and playing both sides of the ball.”
At some point, things changed. Harper has learned to see his situation as a blessing, not a curse. He succumbed to his obsession with hitting and began hyper-focusing on his at-bats, often going on video mid-game with Phils hitting coach Kevin Long. Whenever his place in the order is due for the next inning, Harper heads to the underground batting cage to take some swings; a ritual that he continued even during these tense October matches.
“Harp spends all day thinking about her ABs.” backup infielder Nick Maton said.
“The fans believe in us, and we believe in them.”
Phillies slugger Bryce Harper is yelling at the home fans for coming out after the game was postponed Monday and says the team is driven by the fans’ belief in them.
When he’s on the bench, watching the Phillies on defense, Harper doesn’t let his attention wander. He is almost never on the highest step, chatting with his teammates. His mind is on the game, on his next AB. One Phillie loosely compared it to the laser-focused energy a starting pitcher brings to the dugout between innings.
“He knows he doesn’t have a choice now,” Stott explained. “So you have to find a way to make it work. And it has.”
Whatever Harper has done to stay locked up is obviously working. So far this postseason, he has hit .382/.414/.818 with six homers, a 1.232 OPS and more extra base hits than strikeouts. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive playoff performances in baseball history.
And it’s all thanks to the DH.
Imagine that Harper’s exact injury had happened a year earlier, when the Phillies couldn’t move him to DH. Either he plays through incredible discomfort, or, more likely, he has surgery in May and misses most of the season. Any Phillies fan who, like Castellanos, loved the tactical intrigue of old National League baseball or enjoyed the tomfoolery of the rare home run pitcher must have a different opinion now.
No DH? No Harper. No Harper? No Phillies October magic. This means no “Dancing on My Own”; no celebratory clubhouse cigarettes; no fun Brandon Marsh; no sold-out crowds so loud that they register such as seismic activity.
“Yes, the timing of the DH is just incredible.” backup catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “Destiny sounds to me.”
Jake Mintz, the stronger half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York City, and so leads a lonely existence most of October. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.
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