Bryce Harper has contributed more to the Phillies lately with his glove than his bat.
What’s that saying, you can’t predict ball?
Harper made a game-saving diving catch with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning of a tied game Monday night. In the bottom half of the inning, the Phillies scored three runs to claim a 7-4 victory over the Brewers on a cold, wet, long, miserable night.
This was one of the Phillies’ more satisfying wins of the season given the conditions. It was 48 degrees at first pitch after a 52-minute rain delay but felt even colder. The game was played at a plodding pace, with Aaron Nola and Brewers starter Freddy Peralta combining to throw 153 pitches through the first three innings.
But finally, after a poor start from Nola, six strong innings from the bullpen, another big night from Cesar Hernandez and Harper’s timely defense, the Phillies came away with a series-opening victory over a dangerous Brewers team (see observations).
“A lot of adrenaline in the dugout tonight. Our guys really fought and were focused the entire night,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “After going down early and a short start from Nola, it would have been easy to quit after that long road trip but we kept on fighting.
“It was also gratifying to see Harper contribute the way he did on defense. The catch was sensational, a pivotal moment in the game. Really won the game for us in a lot of ways.”
Harper has been ice cold at the plate. Over his last 20 games, he’s 10 for 68 (.147) with two home runs and 28 strikeouts. He’s struck out multiple times in seven of his last nine games and all of his numbers – batting average, OBP, home runs, walk total – are lower than they were at this time a year ago.
But unlike last season, Harper is making an impact in right field. He had a nightmarish defensive season in 2018. He dove for one ball all season and threw to the wrong base too frequently. In spring training, Harper spoke about how shifting between center field and right field wore him out and affected him as the year progressed. This season, he hasn’t had to worry about manning center. He might not play an inning of center field over the course of this 13-year contract.
Earlier in his career, Harper was more prone to carrying a few bad at-bats – or a few weeks’ worth – into the field with him. This is a different player, a more grown-up player.
“I’m just trying to keep my head in it no matter what,” Harper said. “I think earlier in my career, being young, I wanted to do my best every single time. Of course I still do right now, but it’s both sides of the ball. You’ve got to stay focused on both sides no matter your outcome at the plate. My pitchers need me.”
Like Harper, Nola has also gotten off to a slow start. At this time a year ago, Nola had a 1.99 ERA. He showed signs last Monday in St. Louis of returning to that Cy Young-caliber form with by far his best curveball and best overall command against a potent Cardinals lineup. That did not transfer over to this start. Nola didn’t want to blame the cold or wet conditions for the command issues he referred to as “embarrassing,” but he just wasn’t himself Monday.
Through nine starts, Nola’s ERA is 4.86.
The bullpen picked him up with six innings of one-run ball. The biggest outs were generated by lefty Jose Alvarez, who has been unreliable at times this season. He stabilized the game by getting four outs after shaky performances from Nola, Austin Davis and Juan Nicasio.
“Noles just wasn’t Noles tonight, that’s baseball,” Harper said. “But our bullpen came in and did the job.”
The Phillies’ bullpen has been unheralded but has been among the best in baseball. The unit’s 3.78 ERA is seventh best in the majors and third best in the National League behind only the Reds and Giants.
At the quarter-pole, the Phils are 24-16 with a plus-42 run differential.
Last season through 40 games, the Phils were 24-16 with a plus-42 run differential.
This feels eminently more sustainable, though. And it should be encouraging to those watching that the Phillies have arrived at this record with Harper and Nola – their most important hitter and most important pitcher – both performing well below their capabilities.