Whenever the Philadelphia Phillies have needed a spark over the last few years, Bryce Harper has been the man to deliver it. He did it during his MVP season in 2021, he did it again and again and again during last year’s run to the World Series, and he even did it earlier this summer with a heroic return from offseason Tommy John surgery. So, when the stakes were higher than they’d been all year — Philly deadlocked with the top-seeded Atlanta Braves at a game apiece in the NLDS, reeling after a heartbreaking come-from-ahead loss in Game 2 on Monday night — it should come as no surprise to anyone that it was Harper who answered the bell again.
The Phillies superstar added another sensational performance to his growing postseason legend on Wednesday night, launching two homers — part of a franchise playoff record six on the night — and leading his team to a 10-2 romp and a 2-1 series lead.
He, and we cannot stress this enough, is him. pic.twitter.com/bbPOW5gqyx— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) October 11, 2023
Things got off to a bit of a dicey start, though. The early energy among the Philly faithful was a bit less bawdy than usual and a bit more anxious, likely due to how shocking that Game 2 loss was — and how precarious the series now felt tied at 1-1. Phils starter Aaron Nola was cooking early, racking up four strikeouts through two innings and sitting 95 with his fastball. But this Braves offense can strike in an instant, and a double from Ronald Acuna Jr. and a single by Ozzie Albies staked Atlanta to a 1-0 lead in the top of the third. All of a sudden, a team and a city that had been brimming with so much confidence was on their back foot.
That did not last long. Philly needed a quick response, and they got one from Nick Castellanos, who swatted a game-tying homer to lead off the third.
Brandon Marsh followed with a single, and after a couple quick outs, Trea Turner reached on an infield hit to put men on the corners — with none other than Harper at the plate. The two-time MVP entered the at-bat with a .978 career postseason OPS and 11-for-24 with four homers lifetime against the Braves in October. It was exactly the stage on which he’d delivered so many times before, and what happened next felt almost inevitable:
That flipped the script of this game entirely — all at once, you could feel the Bank exhale, the party was officially on. Philly would tack on two more in the inning, chasing Braves starter Bryce Elder from the game — Atlanta really, really could’ve used a healthy Charlie Morton — and staking themselves to a 6-1 lead.
From there, the Phils were in cruise control. Nola stayed locked in, finishing with two runs on six hits allowed with nine strikeouts over 5.2 innings — his second straight excellent outing after a profoundly disappointing regular season. If this is the version of the righty Philly is going to get all month, it suddenly locks that entire pitching staff into place. Of course, it also helps if you just never stop hitting home runs, and when you have Harper: The 30-year-old went yard again in the bottom of the fifth, marking his first career multi-homer game in the playoffs.
That began a parade of dingers in the later innings, first from Trea Turner:
AND NOW TREA TURNER GOES DEEP! 8-2 PHILLIES pic.twitter.com/4bmfbTpmqx— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 11, 2023
And then back-to-back jobs from Castellanos and Marsh in the bottom of the eighth just for good measure:
By the time the dust finally settled, the final score read 10-2, and this series felt an awful lot like it did after Game 1: The Phillies swaggering, with two aces backed by a bear of a lineup, while the Braves were left wondering where their bear of a lineup had gone and whether they should’ve bolstered their rotation a bit more at the trade deadline.
Of course, it’s far too early to count Atlanta out here. They’ll have Spencer Strider going in Game 4 on Thursday (first pitch at 6:07 p.m. ET), who’s pitched well against Philly all season, and it won’t take much for this offensive Death Star to become a fully operational battle station once again. But the last time Strider pitched at Citizens Bank Park in the playoffs, things didn’t go so well, and the Braves’ lineup has looked like itself for exactly two out of a possible 27 innings so far in this series. Philly’s crowd will be revved up again, and Rob Thomson will have a largely rested bullpen at his disposal behind lefty Ranger Suarez. If Atlanta wants to avoid another early exit at the hands of their division rivals, they need to get their bats out of hibernation.