Into the maw they go.
The 2019 season is eight days old, and it feels like Bryce Harper has made headlines in every one of them. He’s a franchise messiah, go the hot takes in Philadelphia, and a money-worshiping traitor, say the forsaken in Washington. He has saluted his right-field groupies with exaggerated bows of thanks in his new home park, and the invective-spewing antagonists with a deep bow of, let’s say whimsy, in his old one.
He’s struck out to loud cheers against his former team’s ace, and hit a long home run, punctuated by one of the most in-your-face bat-flip flourishes in big-league history, late in the same game.
And oh, yes, he’s been the best hitter in baseball, leading the majors with a ridiculous 1.844 on-base-plus-slugging average.
Perhaps you’ve noticed him.
“We’ve seen it,” said Jake Odorizzi, who will face Harper for the first time on Friday. “He’s all over the TV.”
Into this Bryce Bacchanal comes the Twins, like the Phillies one of four major league teams with only one loss. They’ll meet three times this weekend at Citizens Bank Park, Minnesota’s first visit since 2010. Safe to say, the attention paid to Minnesota’s early success is dwarfed by the spotlight on their opponent, and its latter-day Alex Rodriguez, a superstar with super-polarizing attributes.
“It’s going to be crazy. A weekend in Philadelphia? Their fans are so fired up,” said reliever Trevor May, himself a former Phillies farmhand who had reached Class AA when the Twins traded for him in December 2012. “Bryce has changed that team.”
That’s what happens when a celebrity such as Harper embraces his notoriety, and is embraced right back by a fan base thirsty for success after seven seasons without a winning record. Harper’s contract — $330 million over 13 seasons, with no ability to opt out — displayed the former MVP’s interest in becoming a cornerstone of his new franchise, and the citizenry has responded.
The Phillies sold more than 40,000 seats to each of their first three games last weekend, after having only 12 such games in the four previous seasons combined, and Harper was the reason.
“It’s fun watching him play,” said Byron Buxton. “It doesn’t change how we approach [the games] or anything, but you respect him as a player.”
Harper, still only 26 as he enters his eighth major league season, owns an MVP award from his incredible 2015 season — only seven National Leaguers in the past 40 years have had a higher on-base percentage than his .460 that year — but this year he is off to his best start since then.
He’s been on base 25 times in just five games, including his past eight plate appearances in a row, and owns a .500 batting average and five extra-base hits.
“Bryce Harper is going to have a monster year,” Mets announcer and longtime major league pitcher Ron Darling said on a Sports Illustrated TV interview Thursday.
“When free agents sign, and I know it’s a huge contract, sometimes they fail because the contract is too big for him. Nothing is too big for Bryce Harper. He’s been a star since he was 6 years old.”
He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in June 2009, heralded as the “Chosen One” as a 16-year-old, reached the majors while still a teenager and became the second-youngest Rookie of the Year, 24 days older than Dwight Gooden, in National League history. He helped lead the Nationals to the postseason in four of his first six seasons, and made six All-Star teams.
“He’s an excellent player, to say the very least, and he’s a player we’re going to have to spend a lot of time on, and we respect very much out on the field,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s a talking point in a lot of different ways, but most importantly, for the reasons that go on out on the field. He’s a heck of a player.”
Harper has played the Twins only three times, a sweep of Minnesota in D.C. three years ago, and memorably hit a pinch-hit home run in the ninth inning of the finale off then-closer Kevin Jepsen to send the game to extra innings.
Now it will be up to Baldelli and his staff to cool the overheated atmosphere in Philadelphia, which won’t be easy. Though Kyle Gibson, Martin Perez and Blake Parker have faced him, only one person in the Twins’ clubhouse has any significant experience trying to get Harper out, and that was six years ago.
“And it didn’t go well,” assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said with a laugh.
Actually, Harper had only one hit in their first seven meetings, hitting four ground balls and striking out once. But Harper figured the Mets’ righthander out, smacking two homers and a triple, plus drawing a four-pitch walk, in their final four go-rounds.
“He’s a superstar for a reason. Your margin for error is so much smaller for those types of players,” Hefner said of facing Harper when the slugger was 20 and 21.
“I remember him hitting one off the facade in deep right field at Nationals Park. That shot, I definitely remember.”
Now Hefner will be involved in drawing up a game plan for Twins’ pitchers to follow against Harper, and while he remembers his own approach, he doesn’t know if he will recommend it to his current staff.
“With my below-average stuff, I would throw cutters in close to him, and then I would not go away in the zone until I had done that repeatedly. I remember one of the home runs was off a cutter — I was trying to cut in on him, but it spun and went over the middle,” Hefner said. “He had a double on a curveball I was trying to get to his back foot, but it ended up backdoor [across the plate] and he hit it opposite-way to left-center. For me, you’ve got to crowd him hard, and then go softly down below the zone to try to take advantage of his aggressiveness.”