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'We are not losing this game': How Bryce Harper's mantra is setting a tone for the Phillies

Scott Lauber
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

ST. LOUIS — As Bryce Harper walked into the Phillies' clubhouse at Busch Stadium on Saturday, he spotted Rhys Hoskins.

"We are not losing this game," Harper said.

He had the same greeting for Alec Bohm. Aaron Nola heard him repeat it to a few others, too. Harper has been saying it for days, actually, to everyone and no one in particular, like a man possessed. And in the ninth inning, when the St. Louis Cardinals brought the winning run to the plate, Harper walked up and down the dugout and said, "We are not losing this game. No chance. We're not losing this game."

"All day," he said later. "In the clubhouse, in the dugout, everything. All day. You have to speak it into existence."

Well, guess what: It's working.

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In sweeping St. Louis, 2-0, in the best-of-three National League wild-card round, the Phillies retired Albert Pujols and won their first postseason series since 2010, one year before Pujols and the Cardinals ended Philadelphia's last golden era of baseball. They advanced to a divisional series against the defending World Series champion Braves beginning Tuesday night in Atlanta.

But it also marked the first time Harper advanced in the playoffs in his 11-year career. In four previous postseason series, all with the Washington Nationals, none since 2017, he went home after the first round. In three of those years (2012, 2016, 2017), the Nationals lost a decisive Game 5, all three times at home.

So, it was entirely fitting that Harper hit the home run to give the Phillies the lead that enabled them to clear the very same hurdle that had been too high for him to reach.

"That really hasn't been on my mind," Harper said, steps away from where slight catcher Garrett Stubbs sat on husky Darick Hall's shoulders amid the Phillies' second celebratory champagne-and-beer bash in six days. "It's more just having the opportunity to be here with the Philadelphia Phillies, having the opportunity to get to that next round, beating a really good St. Louis team. We're all just happy to keep going, keep playing our game."

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper (3) reacts after hitting a solo home run during the second inning in Game 2 of a National League wild-card baseball playoff series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)

Lately, Harper's game has been, well, off. He has been candid about searching for his timing at the plate ever since he returned on Aug. 26 from a two-month absence with a broken left thumb. He has been late on fastballs, out in front on breaking pitches. As interim manager Rob Thomson has said, Harper is "stuck in between."

So, it was a beautiful sight for the Phillies when Harper read the spin on Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas' first-pitch curveball in the second inning, stayed back on the ball, and smashed it into the right-field bullpen, hushing the sold-out crowd of 48,515, the largest postseason crowd ever at Busch Stadium.

"Felt great," Harper said. "Any time you can get a barrel and go up 1-0 in a road city, it's really good. I just want to win. If I go 0-for-4 and we win the game, I'm in. That's all that matters right now. But I know when I have good at-bats, our team is going well."

Said Hoskins: "The first thing Bryce told me today is we are not losing this game. Then he goes out and hits a home run in his first at-bat. That's MVP-type stuff right there. It was awesome."

This has all been a long time coming — for the Phillies and their biggest star. Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract — still the largest deal in terms of overall value for a free agent — before the 2019 season. Since then, he watched the Nationals win a World Series without him while the Phillies kept missing out on the playoffs.

When the Phillies clinched a wild card last week in Houston, the third leg of a road trip that will now cover five cities in 16 days, Harper said "it means everything" to the organization. It changed the narrative around the team. Instead of always coming up short, the Phillies finally made it to the tournament.

Winning a series has a similar effect. The Phillies punched their ticket against the Astros, upset the Cardinals, and will be underdogs against the Braves. But as J.T. Realmuto put it, "Nobody's excited to play the Phillies right now." And when was the last time that could be said with a straight face?

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper celebrates with Nick Castellanos (8) after Harper hit a solo home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning in Game 2 of an NL wild-card baseball playoff series, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

If Harper is urging his teammates to refuse to lose, Thomson is encouraging a countdown to the World Series title. As the Phillies' victory party spilled from the field into the clubhouse, Thomson pulled aside Realmuto. A few minutes later, he ended a short speech to the team by inviting the star catcher to the middle of the room.

"Eleven more [wins], Topper," Realmuto said.

Moving on to the divisional round also means the Phillies will return home to Citizens Bank Park. Game 3 will be Friday night. They haven't hosted a postseason game since Oct. 7, 2011. Nobody plays to the crowd like Harper, who likely will break out his green Phanatic spikes when he stands on the first-base line during pregame introductions.

"We're excited to see the towels in the stands," Harper said. "I can't wait to get back. I've got chills right now. I don't know if it's because I'm cold from the beer, but I'm fired up. I can't wait to get back."

In the meantime, he will tell anyone within earshot in Atlanta that the Phillies aren't going to lose. Not Game 1. Or Game 2. It's a sign of leadership from a superstar who usually prefers to set a tone with his play rather than being vocal in the clubhouse. With the Phillies, that tends to fall to Kyle Schwarber.

But it's the playoffs, a stage Harper has not played in too long. And he doesn't intend to leave it after only a few games.

"It's just a message out there: We're not going to lose," Thomson said. "We're going to do whatever we can to win this game. And I think that's a good message. I really do."