MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

It must be difficult for Washington Nationals fans to watch Bryce Harper own baseball, not to mention Trea Turner playing like his old self as they both try to lead the Philadelphia Phillies back to the World Series.

Throw in the matter of Juan Soto still approaching his prime with the San Diego Padres and it reminds us it doesn’t do any good for baseball fans to play hypotheticals when their favorite team is in the middle of a rebuild — albeit seemingly a successful rebuild.

Harper has finally become the Harper everybody said he would become all the way back to when, as a high-school kid, his picture graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. There isn’t a player in baseball who carries his team the way Harper does, and he’s done it the past two seasons in the postseason.

Are we ready to say Bryce Harper is baseball’s new Mr. October? Not quite, because a player needs to start winning World Series titles to earn that distinction — see the still Mr. October Reggie Jackson’s five world titles and record-breaking World Series performances.

Still, what Harper has been doing playing October baseball is a thing of beauty. It’s inspiring.

Monday night in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, he became the fourth player in big-league history to homer on his birthday in the postseason, clouting a first-pitch shot to right-center in the first inning of the Phillies’ 5-3 win over the Diamondbacks.

Crossing home plate, Harper flashed three fingers on his left hand and one on his right, then pretended to blow them out like candles on his 31st birthday. Down the road when history takes a look back, that move has potential to be remembered as a Mr. October moment, though, again, we still have a way to go for that.

Still, as Turner said of Harper after the game, “It’s pretty cool to play on your birthday when your birthday’s this late. I think that’s a big deal.”

It’s a bigger deal to deliver on your birthday as Harper did. Besides becoming the fourth player to homer on his birthday in the postseason, he added an RBI single in the third inning and a walk in the fifth, reaching base three times and scoring twice. Willie Mays Aikens, a member of the 1980 Kansas City Royals, still holds the distinction as the only player to homer twice on his birthday in a postseason game.

Evan Longoria and Kolten Wong are the other players to homer on their birthdays in the postseason, while Harper and Aikens are the only players to do so in an LCS or World Series, as well as the only players to do it with multiple hits.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Harper had been the National League’s hottest hitter in October, slashing .409/.567/.955 in 30 plate appearances, with seven RBIs, nine runs scored and eight walks.

Going back to last year, the Phillies are 9-0 when he homers in a postseason game, and Harper entered last night’s game having hit four homers in the previous five games.

“When he is going up to the plate, you’re just thinking he is going to do something special every single time,” said Kyle Schwarber, who put the Phils up in Game 1 with a first-pitch home run. “Can that be unfair to have an expectation on a player? Sure. But that’s what everyone’s thinking when you’re in the dugout: ‘Man, what’s this guy going to do next?’”

That’s what Harper is thinking; you can tell by watching him play, and watching him play with this much confidence is fun to watch, particularly for a team like the Phillies and for the city and the fans of Philadelphia, amongst the most passionate and loyal fans in sports.

Harper seems perfect for Philly, as neither he nor the Philly fans ever back down or run away from the challenge. As it turns out, it’s perfectly fortunate for Philly, because when Harper became a free agent, his first choice was to stay a National, which, of course, did not happen and did not seem to bother anybody in D.C. at the time since the Nationals went on to win the World Series without him.

Harper’s next choice was the New York Yankees, but as Harper himself made a point to discuss the other day, the Yankees did very little to hide their indifference for him; and to guys who have big Octobers, indifference is the greatest motivator of them all.

As Reggie Jackson once said, “Boo me, cheer me, but don’t ignore me.”

The Yanks ignored Bryce Harper, but you won’t hear anybody in Philadelphia complain.

You won’t hear anybody in Baltimore, Boston, Tampa or Toronto complain either.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT