Bryce Harper did not need the extra motivation, but his teammates were thrilled to offer it to him. When he got to work today, there they all were, telling him one after another that Atlanta shortstop Orlando Arcia had taunted him after Game 2 of the National League Division Series, which ended when Harper was thrown out on the bases in a wild 8–5–3 double play.
“They looked at me,” Harper said, “And they were like, ‘What are you going to do?’”
What he did was crush two home runs, one to give the Phillies the lead and the other to put the game out of reach, as Philadelphia won Game 3, 10–2, to take a 2–1 lead in the best-of-five NLDS. What he did was stare at Arcia as he rounded second both times. What he did was provide the Phillies with another signature moment in a postseason career full of them.
“When the lights are the brightest,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson, “He shows up.”
Sometimes Harper turns the brightness up himself. He likes to listen to local sports radio to learn what fans think of him. If he had ignored Arcia’s words, fans and media alike would have forgotten about them by Game 4. Harper created this story line. Did he enjoy glaring at Arcia as he ran? “Yeah,” he said. “I mean, I stared right at him.”
Arcia declined to provide much analysis of his comments, a series of loud “Attaboy, Harper!”s and cackles after Game 2 that were first reported by Fox Sports’s Jake Mintz.
Arcia said through interpreter Franco García that he had not intended for Harper to learn of his words. About the stare, he said, “He can look wherever he wants.” Otherwise, Arcia insisted that he had not thought about the taunt at all, although another person who was present acknowledged that the team discussed it both before and after the game.
The Phillies mostly seemed to find the whole thing funny. Coincidentally, they swore, Harper and right fielder Nick Castellanos wore Colorado apparel to Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday, prompting questions about whether they were referencing coach Deion Sanders’s call-and-response with his team from last month: “When they give us ammunition, they done messed around and made it what?” “Personal.”
They both insisted that they wore the clothes because they had just arrived. “I was driving to the field, and I went ‘Oh, no!’” Harper said with a laugh. “‘He actually played for Atlanta. Maybe I should turn around and go take this shirt off.’”
But if it brought attention, so much the better. Harper, 30, has never known any different. He told his father at 11 years old that he planned to be the No. 1 draft pick. He debuted on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16; the headline called him baseball’s LeBron James. He graduated high school that same year and went to junior college, did indeed become the No. 1 pick at 17, spent seven years as the face of the Nationals, signed what was then the biggest free-agent deal in North American sports history at 26. He is hitting .350 and slugging .775 in the postseason as a Phillie; this series, those figures are .455 and 1.273.
“When I was 10 years old, 11 years old, I played in so many big tournaments and big lights,” he said. “And, I mean, you guys couldn’t imagine the pressure of the situations or going to JUCO early and having everybody in the world relying on you to be the No. 1 pick. That was hard. You know, 17 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, you know. 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.”
He had a lot of fun when he hit that first bomb, as did his teammates. Atlanta, whose pitching staff has been wiped out by injuries, sent 24-year-old righty Bryce Elder to the mound for his first career postseason start, in an environment Thomson said an opposing coach described to him as “four hours of hell.”
Elder retired the first six hitters he saw, while Atlanta scored a run. Then: “It just kind of, I don’t know,” said manager Brian Snitker.
Castellanos led off the third inning with a home run. Five batters later, Harper strode to the plate with two on and two out. He fouled off a sinker, then took a sinker and a slider for balls. Then Elder missed badly with a slider. Harper waited until the ball was nearly in the right field seats before beginning his trot.
“It was electric in the dugout on Cast’s, but Harp’s home run, I think everybody just kind of lost it there for a second,” said Thomson.
The 45,798 in attendance did the same, seeming to shake the ballpark in jubilation. Harper noticed.
“I love this place,” he said, becoming emotional. “Flat out, I love this place. There’s nothing like coming into the Bank and playing in front of these fans. Blue collar mentality, tough, fighting every single day. I get chills, man. I get so fired up. Man, I love this place!
“I signed here for a reason, to do everything I could to bring back a trophy to this town, to [owner John] Middleton, to this organization. I got chills thinking about it, because that’s what it’s all about. I absolutely love this place.
“I love every single person in this organization, fighting, clawing every single day to get back to that moment. There were so many good times in ’07, ’08, ’09, 2010, ’11. And I want to get back to that moment into the postseason and playing in front of these fans and Red October.
“I could go on and on, man. There’s nothing like playing here, and Garrett Stubbs said it best, man: ‘If you don’t like it, you can get out, because we do’’t want you here.’ And we want to be able to come in each night and play our game, and they are with us in this every single step of the way.”
The next step will come Thursday, when, for the second straight year, the Phillies can knock out Atlanta in four games to advance to the National League Championship Series. That’s what Harper plans to do.