What does a guy do when he's a one-time phenom who's achieved every regular-season accolade imaginable but is otherwise lacking a signature postseason moment?
If you're Bryce Harper, you hit a home run that puts your team in the World Series.
The San Diego Padres had the Philadelphia Phillies in a 3-2 hole in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series when Harper strode to the plate with a runner on and nobody out in the bottom of the eighth inning on Sunday. And yet, the scene didn't feel tense. The energy at Citizens Bank Park felt more like anticipation. Almost a sense of certainty.
It's as if the Phillies faithful in attendance knew that Harper was about to put one in the seats.
When Ranger Suárez secured the final two outs of a 4-3 win, he joined a lengthy list of Phillies who deserve some amount of credit for delivering the team's first National League pennant since 2009. Real quick: Zack Wheeler, Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber, Jean Segura, Seranthony Domínguez, Jose Alvarado, Zach Eflin, David Robertson and Connor Brogdon.
At the top of the heap, though, is the obvious MVP of the series: Harper. And while his work is not yet done, it almost feels unfair to ask more of him.
The Chosen One, Indeed
Now would seem an appropriate time to look back at how the world was introduced to Harper in a way that was, to put it lightly, attention-grabbing.
We're talking, of course, about that 2009 Sports Illustrated cover story that Tom Verducci did when Harper was a 16-year-old high schooler in Las Vegas:
This was notably before LeBron James won multiple MVPs and NBA Finals in the 2010s, but the comparison felt hyperbolic nonetheless. How could Harper possibly live up to it?
Fast-forward to 2010, though, and there's Harper going No. 1 overall in the draft to the Washington Nationals. Skip to 2012, and he's winning the National League Rookie of the Year. Jump to 2015, and he's winning the NL MVP by a unanimous vote.
Yet even as he did pretty much everything in his power to live up to the impossible hype that had been placed on his head back in '09, skepticism also tended to follow Harper. His peers voted him the most overrated player in MLB on more than one occasion, including at the outset of the 2015 and 2019 seasons.
He also had his detractors as he was nearing free agency in 2018, including one outspoken NL executive:
Point: This always was a ridiculous perspective of such an accomplished player.
Counterpoint: Then again, at that time Harper carried an up-and-down postseason track record that included zero games beyond the Division Series.
The 13-year, $330 million contract the Phillies signed Harper to in March 2019 was thus a sort of twofold bargain. It was a bet that he would not only continue producing at an MVP-caliber level, but that it would also translate to the playoffs if the Phillies ever snapped a drought that traced back to 2011.
Well, suffice it to say that the past four seasons have been a tough time for the naysayers.
Harper's first three seasons in Philadelphia were broadly excellent, and never more so than in 2021 as he won his second NL MVP on the strength of a 1.044 OPS and 35 home runs. So it went at the outset of 2022, as he once again carried a 1.000 OPS into late June.
Harper's good Philly vibes didn't truly hit a wall until Padres left-hander Blake Snell broke his thumb with a wayward fastball on June 25. That sidelined him for two months, and he shockingly returned to do more harm than good.
He hit just three home runs in 35 games down the stretch, and the Phillies, which had gone 32-20 in his absence, limped to a 16-19 finish. Even though they finally ended their playoff drought, they fell short of their first 90-win season since 2011. They were nobody's idea of a World Series favorite, especially if Harper's bat continued to be a non-factor.
Whether it's because his thumb finally became fully healthy at just the right time or he's just plain energized by the setting, it's safe to say Harper's bat has been a factor.
Even before Sunday's game, he was already riding a nine-game hit streak in which he was 16-for-36 with four home runs and six doubles. The fourth of those home runs might well have set the tone for the NLCS, as it gave the Phillies their first lead of the series in Game 1.
Once his second homer of the series landed in the left-field bleachers, Harper claimed the Phillies record for most extra-base hits in a single postseason and, oh yeah, it was a true rarity of a home run. As noted by Paul Casella of MLB.com, Harper is only the sixth player to hit a go-ahead blast with his team trailing in the eighth inning or later of a playoff clincher.
As for what the so-called "selfish, losing" player thinks of the biggest moment of his baseball life, we'll let him speak for himself:
MLB Network @MLBNetwork
"This city, this team, organization. This is all for them, this is unbelievable."<br><br>An emotional Bryce Harper shares his love for the city of Philadelphia after he helped send the <a href="https://twitter.com/Phillies?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Phillies</a> to the World Series for the first time since 2009.<a href="https://twitter.com/LGRed?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@LGRed</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RedOctober?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RedOctober</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Postseason?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Postseason</a> <a href="https://t.co/9b05RfCrhP">pic.twitter.com/9b05RfCrhP</a>
Spoken like a true champion. Perhaps only of the National League for now, but Harper will get his shot to climb another step higher when he and the Phillies begin the World Series on Friday.
The Padres Will Be Back
Meanwhile, the Padres can be forgiven if they're walking away from the NLCS feeling like they should have won it.
They had their chances, after all, particularly in the last two games. They held leads of 4-0 and 6-4 en route to a back-breaking 10-6 loss in Game 4. In Game 5, Harper's home run might have been prevented if manager Bob Melvin had gone to lefty closer Josh Hader instead of sticking with the right-handed Robert Suárez.
"We really thought we were destined for more," Melvin said afterward. "It's definitely disappointing."
All the same, the Padres should also walk away from their 2022 experience feeling like it won't be a one-and-done.
They may have only won 89 games in the regular season, but their truly dangerous nature surely showed through as they dispatched the 101-win New York Mets and 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers to get to the NLCS.
By all appearances going into the NLCS, the Padres were a buzz saw. By all appearances coming out of the NLCS, they simply ran into a sharper, tougher buzz saw.
Come 2023, though, most of the band will be back. Not just Manny Machado and Juan Soto, but also Fernando Tatís Jr. once he is done with the suspension he received for violating MLB's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. The ace trio of Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove is also slated to return, and ditto for Hader.
A team with that much talent can go places. Indeed, it's already been places. Next year, the Padres will be hoping to go even further.