Bryce Harper in a wicked slump, but Phillies don't earn this satisfying win without his glove

Bryce Harper in a wicked slump, but Phillies don't earn this satisfying win without his glove

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.

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Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Will we see Scott Kingery start in center field regularly?

Sunday was Scott Kingery’s first career start in center field and it came in his first game back. Kingery was sidelined for a month with a hamstring strain that was worse than the ones suffered by Jean Segura and Odubel Herrera. 

Kingery fared well in his return. There were no issues in the field, and at the plate he went 1 for 3 with a walk and a stolen base. The hit was a smooth line drive to left field in his first at-bat. 

With Herrera not providing much at the plate (.234 batting average, .297 OBP), Kingery will continue to see time in center field. It doesn’t make sense right now to sit Cesar Hernandez for him given how hot Hernandez has been for the last month. But Herrera and Maikel Franco are different stories. 

Kingery will not start Monday night in Chicago. The Phillies are monitoring his workload with him fresh off the IL. He will, however, likely start multiple games in the Cubs series. The Phillies face lefties Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester in consecutive games Tuesday through Thursday. Seems like a logical spot to sit Herrera for Kingery. 

Kingery was hitting .406 when he was sidelined. He started the season looking like a completely different player than last season. 

“The most important thing (while I was out) was trying to keep my timing,” Kingery said after the Phillies’ 7-5 win over the Rockies Sunday. “As soon as I could pick up the bat I was in the cage, working on my swing, fastball machine, doing whatever I could, seeing live arms BP-wise and stood in on a few bullpens just to see some different pitches. That's about all you can do when you're hurt. I feel good now.”

Defensively, Kingery will face some adjustments. Center field is not his natural position nor does he have extensive experience there. But his speed, range and instincts give him a chance to be an above-average defender there. 

“I think the main goal is my arm slot has always been for an infielder,” Kingery said. “So I have to work at getting a little more over the top and get a little more carry on the ball. I'd say that's one of the most important things for me right now.”

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Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

Bryce Harper back to feeling like Bryce Harper as Phillies head to the Midwest with something to prove

For a little while, all of those "What's wrong with Bryce Harper?" pieces can be shelved. 

Harper's not on the verge of breaking out of his slump. He's already broken out of it.

"It's not a close thing, I think he's there," manager Gabe Kapler said after the Phillies completed a weekend sweep of the visiting Rockies with a 7-5 win.

Harper had the game-winning home run, a 404-foot blast into the Phillies' bullpen to untie the game in the sixth inning (see observations). It was his second straight game with a homer and gave him four extra-base hits in his last three games. He's raised his slugging percentage by 47 points over that span.

"He might not get two hits and a home run tomorrow, but that doesn't mean he's not where he needs to be," Kapler said. "I think the home run that he hit to center field (Saturday) was the turning point and the moment where he started to feel more like Bryce."

In the all-important sixth inning Sunday, J.T. Realmuto tied the game with a pinch-hit home run off of a right-handed reliever and Harper followed three batters later with the deciding home run against a left-handed reliever. The inning highlighted how the Phillies' best hitters are equipped to deal with specialists from both sides. 

Realmuto's longball came against veteran reliever Bryan Shaw, who has lasted 10 years in the bigs because of his ability to retire right-handed hitters. Coming into Sunday, righties were 8 for 58 against Shaw, hitting .138.

Realmuto, like Rhys Hoskins, has reverse career platoon splits. Realmuto's hit .286 against righties with a .777 OPS compared to .250 vs. lefties with a .730 OPS. From 2016-18, Jean Segura and Realmuto ranked second and third in the majors, respectively, batting .292 and .291 against right-handed breaking balls.

The pitch Realmuto hit out from Shaw was not a breaking ball but a changeup. It was his first career pinch-hit home run and it came a few days after Kapler noted that Realmuto's power should be coming based on the quality of hard contact he'd been making.

Harper, meanwhile, took Dunn deep for the second time in a month. He is hitting .304/.407/.537 this season against lefties with six doubles and three homers.

Rare is the left-handed power hitter who doesn't have a major hole in his swing against lefties. Harper is that rare lefty. Last season, he had nine homers, 12 doubles and an .857 OPS against southpaws. The pace he's on this year is even better.

Harper knows he's faced Dunn a ton but doesn't pay attention to his career numbers against him or many other pitchers for that matter.

"He's always been a tough matchup for me," Harper said of Dunn. "Since I was younger, 2012, faced him my rookie year in the East when he was with Miami. Being able to face a guy like that, see his tendencies ... got him today.

"I just go with the feel. I don't really look at (the batter vs. pitcher matchup). Any given day, you could go out there and punch me out in three pitches, it's part of the game. Just gotta keep going. Any given day could be different."

In the span of three days, the Phillies removed the bad taste of the Brewers series from their mouths. They followed a season-high three straight losses with three straight wins. They head to Chicago leading the Braves by 2½ games, the Mets by 6½ games and the Nationals by 7½ games, pending Sunday night's result.

In Chicago, Harper's sample size of 54 plate appearances against lefties will grow. The Phillies face three straight lefties Tuesday through Thursday in Jose Quintana, Cole Hamels and Jon Lester.

The Phillies aren't looking past the Cubs, who are the hottest team in baseball. But they definitely have the following series circled.

"We're really looking forward to getting back at Milwaukee," said Jerad Eickhoff, who started Sunday's game. 

"We didn't put our best foot forward against them. We're gonna take care of Chicago first and go into Milwaukee with a chip on our shoulder."

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