CLEVELAND — Bryce Harper knows how to play a crowd. He’s done it all season at Citizens Bank Park with his pre-game bow to the fans in the right-field seats followed by his heaving of a warm-up ball into the upper deck.
The fans love it.
They love it even more when he hits home runs.
Harper belted his 33rd homer of the season to lead a 9-4 Phillies’ win over the Cleveland Indians on Saturday night. The home run was an impressive one, a three-run shot that put the Phils ahead, 5-4, with one out in the fifth inning.
The Phillies have played 153 games and they are in the midst of an 11-game road trip. At this time of year, the days seem to become a blur. Sometimes players don’t even know what day it is, or what city they’re waking up in. All they know is that there is another game to play.
But Harper was keenly aware of his surroundings Saturday night, keenly aware of what state he was in. As he crossed home plate after his go-ahead homer, he raised his arms and made the "O-H” sign above his head. And as he spoke with reporters after the game, he wore an Ohio State cap — backwards, of course.
“Big win for the Bucks today,” he said of the 76-5 whooping that Ohio State’s football team put on Miami of Ohio.
Harper’s wife, Kayla, played soccer at Ohio State. That was the birth of his fandom.
The fans in Cleveland appreciated the love that Harper showed for the Buckeyes.
They just would have preferred that he’d done it after, say, a harmless single.
Phillies starter Jason Vargas really appreciated the homer. He gave up four runs in the first two innings — two were unearned after Jean Segura’s error in the first inning — but kept his club in the game until the bats got going in the middle innings. Vargas pitched 6 2/3 bullpen-saving innings and ended up with his first win since July 28, when he was a member of the Mets.
Brad Miller hit the first of his two homers in the fourth inning and Harper put the Phils ahead with his three-run shot in the fifth. Harper’s homer was preceded by hits from Adam Haseley and J.T. Realmuto.
With his team up, 4-2, Cleveland manager Terry Francona brought in lefty Oliver Perez to face Harper. Perez had retired Harper the night before. This time, Harper fouled off five pitches before hitting the ninth pitch, a full-count slider, over the wall in right field.
“It’s nice to be able to stay competitive and keep us in position to get back into the game and then, golly, I mean I can’t say that I’ve seen a more professional at-bat than the one Harper had against Perez right there,” Vargas said. “I think that any time you see an at-bat like that from your main guy, it’s just — he really didn’t give in and he really made the effort to stay in the at-bat and do everything he could do to get his pitch and he really capitalized and made a difference for us.”
Harper has 15 homers and 36 RBIs in his last 40 games.
“He has been tremendous in the second half of the season for us,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We win when Harper hits.
“That nine-pitch at-bat felt determined to me. Like he was determined not to fail. He was determined to put the ball in play and put it in play hard. He just did a good job of getting up underneath that baseball and putting it in the air.”
The Phils hit four homers on the night and they got excellent work from the bullpen, which has a 2.69 ERA — second-best in baseball — over the last 20 games.
A smiling Vargas stood in the dugout and greeted reliever Jared Hughes when he retired dangerous Francisco Lindor to end the seventh.
The victory was the 99th of Vargas’ career and it kept the Phils mathematically alive in the NL wild-card race at five games back with nine to play.
Vargas, 36, intends to pitch next season — the Phillies hold a $6 million option on his contract, though it’s unclear if they will pick that up — but he would prefer to get his 100th win before then.
He lines up to make one more start this season.
“I’d definitely like to get it sooner than later, obviously, but I’ve gone this long without having 100,” Vargas said. “It will be nice when it comes and hopefully it comes. It would definitely be a nice thing to have.”
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