Bryce Harper, Phillies stare down the pressure and the digs with another NLDS trouncing of Braves

PHILADELPHIA — In Game 3 of the 2022 World Series, the Philadelphia Phillies tied a series record with five home runs. In Game 3 of the 2023 NLDS, they tied an MLB postseason record with six home runs.

This is a metaphor about how the current Phillies team is just like last year’s Phillies team — same theme song, same himbo energy, same scrappy mentality, even if it’s a little less justified the second time around — except, maybe, better?

They say Phillies fans never sit down, but that’s not quite true. Watch the clip closely, pause it at just the right millisecond, and you can see: Before Bryce Harper has even fully unwound from the torque of his gargantuan swing, the Philly fans visible behind him are rising out of their seats, fists punching the air.

Harper is still standing in the batter’s box when the broadcast cuts to the right-field bleachers, and to frame the ball in flight, you can’t even see the field. Instead, it’s a sea of undulating red, stark against the twilight sky, into which a baseball traveling 109.5 mph off the bat finishes its 408-foot journey.

That was one of two home runs Harper hit Wednesday as the Phillies routed the Braves 10-2 to take a two-games-to-one series lead, just a fraction of the total 2,023 feet of record-matching, pandemonium-inducing longballs launched by the Philly lineup. It was also the moment Harper did exactly what you would expect him to do if the story of the postseason is about him.

“Oh, yeah. He’s a Hall of Famer. I mean, he’s one of those guys that loves that stage,” said Brian Snitker, the Braves manager and a man who very much does not want this postseason to be about Harper.

Even he had to admit: “You put him in the spotlight, and he’s going to shine.”

The Bryce Harper Game actually started on the last play of Game 2, when the Philly franchise cornerstone was doubled off first to cap a stunning Braves comeback. This division series is a hotly anticipated sequel to what happened last season, when the wild-card Phillies eliminated a Braves team that has been comfortably ensconced atop the NL East for six years now as part of their storybook storming through the National League side of the playoff bracket. Last season’s iteration left Atlanta with the series tied at a game apiece, and after Harper ended up on the wrong side of the most memorable play of the postseason so far, this one did, too.

Against the Marlins in the wild-card round, well, the Phillies looked to be on cruise control to pick up where they left off last year. But the Braves are a far more formidable foe. Maybe 2022 was lightning in a bottle, beginner’s luck for a team that hadn’t been in the postseason in more than a decade, a good story about an underdog club that danced its way blithely to the pennant by not knowing any better.

Because on Monday, the best-in-baseball Braves had what will be remembered as the signature moment of their season — if it ends in November. As for the Phillies, the hard-charging, unbridled aggressiveness, no-thoughts-just-vibes energy had run them into their first loss of these playoffs. It was the Braves’ fault, mostly, but it was Harper’s fault a little.

“I think that the way the game ended in Atlanta was perfect,” Nick Castellanos, who also had two home runs in Game 3, said several days later, when it was clear that the final play of Game 2 was not the turning point the Braves hoped it would be. “Because I think that that jolt of emotion and kind of seeing them really celebrate kind of set the tone for this game.”

As part of that celebration, Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia laughed to his teammates at Harper’s misfortune. “Ha ha, atta-boy, Harper!” he said, according to Fox Sports. It was the petty diss heard ‘round the Mid-Atlantic.

What’s remarkable is that Harper didn’t shy away from questions about whether Arcia’s comments heightened tensions between the two teams, division rivals that now have high-stakes October clashes to complement their many in-season matchups.

He first learned about them from his teammates. “They just kind of told me,” Harper relayed Wednesday. “They looked at me, and they were like, ‘What are you going to do?’”

Well, first he hit the home runs. But then, as he was rounding the bases — both times — he appeared to look directly at Arcia. Or, to be more specific, in Harper’s own words: “I stared right at him.”

If it seems cliché or contrived to craft a narrative in which Harper had something to prove and did so in dramatic fashion, consider that hitting a home run is quite difficult. It makes perfect sense that the slighted superstar led a historic charge in front of a fired up crowd to push the offending team to the brink of elimination. But just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s easy — or any less impressive.

“Just the way he does things, when it happens and the timing and off who,” said Trea Turner, who added a home run of his own in Game 3, “it just always seems like it’s something that only he can do.”

“He’s a big-game player. He really is,” said Harper’s manager, Rob Thomson. “When the lights are the brightest, he shows up.”

That kind of characterization gets thrown around a lot in sports because someone is always having success at a key moment. Harper backs it up with the stats — in 41 playoff games, he has an OPS over 1.000 — but also with the backstory: famous from the time he was a child, on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, leaving high school early to get on a faster path to the pros, going first overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, signing a $330 million contract.

After the game Wednesday, Harper seemed contemplative about how those experiences prepared him to enjoy moments such as this.

“When I was 10 years old, 11 years old, I played in so many big tournaments and big lights. And I mean, you guys couldn’t imagine the pressure of the situations or going to [junior college] early and having everybody in the world relying on you to be the No. 1 pick. That was hard,” he said. “Seventeen years old, 16 years old, trying to be the No. 1 pick, knowing that if you’re not, you’re a failure. So that’s pressure. Trying to make all the money you can to get your family out of an area or set them up for life, that’s pressure.

“This is all cake, man. This is so much fun.”

That attitude powered the Phillies to something memorable a year ago, and now, one win away from the NLCS, they look like they’re having too much fun to fail.

Brandon Marsh hit the last of the Phillies’ six homers on the night. He found out it tied the postseason record when the media asked him about it after the game.

“I think that’s incredible,” he said, reacting on the spot. “I think tomorrow we’ve got to try to get one more than we did today.”

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