ALLENTOWN, Dad. – With one big swing, Bryce Harper looked poised to join the Philadelphia Phillies in a pennant race.
Harper homered to right midfield on Tuesday-evening in his first at bat for the organization’s Triple-A team as part of his rehabilitation assignment from a broken left thumb.
Harper was the designated batter and finished second in the lineup for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs to start a six-game run against Gwinnett. He drilled the fifth pitch he saw of Atlanta Braves prospect Jared Shuster high over the wall in Coca-Cola Park in front of what was billed as a sold-out crowd of 10,001 fans.
He ran into Shuster in his second at bat to the booing of the crowd who wanted Harper to make another big blow.
Gwinnett had some fun after Harper’s solo home run narrowed the Stripers lead to 3-1, tweeting, “Phillies prospect Bryce Harper goes deep to narrow Stripers lead 3-1. Admittedly, he looks like someone to keep an eye on in the future.”
Harper, who won his second NL MVP award last year, has not played for the Phillies since he broke his left thumb on June 25. playoff-fighting Phillies start a series in Arizona.
The 29-year-old Harper, who signed a $330 million 13-year deal with the Phillies in 2019, hits .318 with 15 home runs, 48 RBIs and a .985 OPS. Harper had already surrendered his right field spot earlier this season due to a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing elbow. He last played on the field in Miami on April 16.
The Phillies battled in a tie for the final NL wild-card spot on Tuesday.
Harper was a resounding success for the fans who came in large numbers to catch a glimpse of one of baseball’s most popular players.
The IronPigs merchandise store and ticket phone lines have been buzzing for the past two days in anticipation of his arrival. Will he play? Are sweaters for sale? What time do the gates open? A cashier looked out the team store window and noted, “I’ve never seen hundreds of people standing out there at 5:12 am alone.”
Merchandise director Mike Luciano faced an early outage when Harper decided to change his uniform number for his minor league stint. Although an attraction, Harper didn’t want to act as a distraction for the IronPigs and allowed reliever Jonathan Hennigan to keep his number 3, while the slugger bumped one to number 4.
“I ordered a lot of threes,” Luciano said. “Luckily the 4s came in.”
Harper T-shirts were really hot off the press. About 90 minutes before the first pitch, about 150 Harper shirts were still as warm as a ballpark hot dog, shuffling quickly from print to store shelves. The blue No. 4 shirts sold for $28 and a limited number of custom jerseys went for $110, sales sizzling at a better pace than the usual top sellers, which, Luciano said, would be “anything with bacon.”
“You put a strip of bacon on a hat, people love it,” Luciano said.
Chris Philpott, of Allentown, bought two game tickets in the morning and was holding a Harper T-shirt in the store. He usually attends about 12 IronPigs games a year and just needed to get a seat for Tuesday night.
“I got here early because my kid was hoping to catch him on BP,” he said. “We saw all the cameras when we came in. It’s going to be crazy tonight. Normally you don’t see people queuing up when there’s no giveaway so early before the game starts.”
Harper didn’t hit the field, but that didn’t stop fans from hanging over the railing at the IronPigs dugouts in hopes of getting a closer look at the two-time NL MVP. TV stations broadcast live remotes and the press room was full of outlets normally reserved for the Phillies, who played at home on the turnpike against the Cincinnati Reds.
Two hours before the gates opened, there were only 80 tickets left, most along the right field line. The stadium — home to similar warm-up stints for Pedro Martinez and Chase Utley in the past — was packed on a night that went to the dogs. Yes, in a nod to an evening devoted to area dog adoption efforts, Harper skipped the bacon-themed gear for an IronMutts jersey.