PHILADELPHIA — Taijuan Walker has a new spot this postseason. He’s planted himself on the dugout steps, against the railing, and this affords him an exclusive perspective. “I have nothing else to do,” Walker said. “I might as well be on the top step cheering for them. You know?” Walker won 15 games in the regular season. He might have something to do if the Phillies keep winning like they did Wednesday night.
But, for now, he is the last person for a Phillies hitter to talk to before he reaches the on-deck circle. The hitters sometimes engage Walker. Sometimes, he’ll ask them a question if he senses they are tense.
When Bryce Harper stood beside Walker in the bottom of the third inning, there was no chat. “Go get ’em, 3,” Walker said. Walker didn’t dare tell Harper what he was thinking. It’s what everybody inside Citizens Bank Park was thinking during Game 3 of this thrilling National League Division Series.
“He’s built for these moments,” Walker said. “We all knew when he showed up and didn’t say a word. He was just locked in from right when he showed up. We just said, ‘OK. He’s going to do something crazy today.’ And he did it twice. He almost did it three times.”
Walker laughed. This — Phillies 10, Braves 2 — was ridiculous. All of it. The Phillies can advance to the National League Championship Series with a win Thursday night in Game 4. They will face Spencer Strider, one of the best pitchers in the sport. It will be difficult. But, inside this building, everything feels possible.
And, when Harper is at the plate, time stops.
“My teammates, they just kind of told me,” Harper said. “They looked at me, and they were like, ‘What are you going to do?’”
Harper didn’t move from the batter’s box as his majestic three-run homer floated into the second deck. He started to trot to first base. He shot a glance at Orlando Arcia, Atlanta’s shortstop who had reportedly mocked him after Harper made the 27th out in Game 2 on an 8-5-3 double play, then looked straight ahead. That wasn’t it. This merited a more emphatic message.
Harper, as he rounded second base, stared down Arcia.
“I think they woke him up,” Walker said.
“You disrespect one of the great players in the game, it just adds fuel to his fire,” Zack Wheeler said. “Those guys a lot of times don’t need more fuel to the fire. Because it’s dangerous.”
“Harp was going to go off because he said it,” outfielder Jake Cave said. “So, we were just going to let that happen.”
Arcia did not deny what he said. “He wasn’t supposed to hear it,” Arcia said after Game 3 through a Braves interpreter. “That’s why we were talking in the clubhouse.” The Athletic reviewed an audio recording from an interview inside the Braves clubhouse following Game 2 and an unidentifiable voice can be heard in the background saying, “Atta boy, Harper!” The voice says it numerous times and loud enough for anyone to hear. It’s punctuated with laughter each time.
“Yeah,” Harper said, “I mean I stared right at him.”
“I can’t control where he looks,” Arcia said. “He can look wherever he wants to look.”
Arcia is not why the Phillies are one win from conquering the mighty Braves in the postseason yet again. But he didn’t hurt their chances.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’” one Phillies player said. “He just absolutely f—-ed himself for at least one game.”
When it started, it didn’t feel the same. The crowd was loud on Wednesday. But something was amiss. Maybe it was the 5:07 p.m. ET start time. Maybe it was the way Game 2 ended. Maybe it was because the Braves jumped to a one-run lead while Bryce Elder made quick work of the Phillies in two innings.
Then, at 5:57 p.m., Nick Castellanos smashed an 89 mph sinker into the left-field seats to tie the game. Everyone relaxed. And, over the next 21 surreal minutes, this series tilted toward the Phillies. They scored six runs in the third inning. They had momentum.
They had Harper.
“I think that the way the game ended in Atlanta was perfect,” Castellanos said, “because I think that that jolt of emotion and seeing them really celebrate kind of set the tone for this game.”
Almost everyone in the clubhouse was aware of reports from Fox Sports and The Washington Post that identified a Braves player as having mocked Harper for his overaggressiveness on the bases. Fox Sports identified the player as Arcia. It had been a heartbreaking loss for the Phillies, but in the hours between games, they found levity in an opposing player sniping at Harper.
Maybe it calmed the Phillies clubhouse.
“Oh, they’re normal in there today,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said before Game 3. “There’s a lot of talk of the Arcia thing.”
“All the talk was on social media,” Walker said. “We see it.”
“To be honest,” a smiling Brandon Marsh said, “we never said a word about it.”
“Just joking around,” Wheeler said. “But we knew what was going to happen. I think everybody kind of knew.”
There was a feeling. In the bullpen, the Phillies relievers play a game. Every pitcher can throw their hat down once a game to call a homer. Hoffman tossed his hat in the first inning when Kyle Schwarber led off. Nope. Then, in the third, Harper stepped to the plate.
“There were three hats on the ground,” Hoffman said, “waiting for that homer.”
Orion Kerkering, Cristopher Sánchez and Gregory Soto had tossed theirs. Now, Hoffman owes them.
“I need to go to the ATM,” he said.
Derik Hamilton stationed himself to the right of the TV cameras in center field and he pointed his Nikon Z9 with a 600-mm lens toward the field. He is a 36-year-old freelance photographer from Bear, Del., who is working for the Phillies during the postseason. When Harper homered in the third inning, Hamilton trained his camera on Harper — until he reached first base. Then, he photographed fans celebrating.
He missed the stare. He missed the shot.
“I saw it out of the corner of my eye the first time,” Hamilton said.
When Harper came to bat in the fifth, Hamilton figured he’d stay on the slugger no matter what happened. Harper drove a Brad Hand slider 414 feet to center for his second homer.
Harper stared down Arcia again. Hamilton snapped it.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) October 11, 2023
“Once I looked at the back of the camera and saw it was in focus, I knew it was done,” Hamilton said. “I knew it was an iconic shot.”
“Making that image is a good feeling,” Hamilton said. “But it’s better because we were able to tell that story. We were able to show that. We don’t want to let it go unmissed. We had it.”
It’s the little things, Schwarber said, that make those moments. He thought back to 2022 when Harper took the swing of his life in Game 5 of the NLCS. “Everyone talks about the take on the changeup,” Schwarber said. “Like, that’s what it is. That’s the difference-maker of getting to that pitch versus not.” Even a foul ball could have changed the situation. Everything changes.
Harper had seen 35 pitches in the first two games of this series and 27 of them were out of the strike zone. He saw five pitches in his first at-bat Wednesday night and two of them were strikes — although borderline ones. Harper whiffed at a 92 mph fastball above the zone for strike three. But, later, Phillies hitters admitted the first two innings were a challenge. The unusual start time meant the batter’s eye was still covered in sunlight while everything else was darker. It was tougher to detect spin.
“Once it finally got darker,” Schwarber said, “you were able to see.”
When the top of the third began, only the top of the batter’s eye was covered in sunlight. Both Braves and Phillies hitters took better swings in the third inning.
“He spit on a couple of tough pitches,” Schwarber said. “Then he gets a hanging slider. It’s a good pitch to hit and he didn’t miss it.”
It’s one thing to think someone will rise to the moment time and time again. It’s another to actually do it.
“Yeah,” Schwarber said, “I mean … I think that … you’re looking at … he’s just, you know … he’s f—-ing really good. You know what I mean?”
By the eighth inning, it was a party, and fans chanted. “We want Strider!” they yelled. The Phillies heard it. So did the Braves.
“Our fans have been great,” Trea Turner said. “Man, they’re funny. I love it. It’s them being themselves.”
The Phillies can end this thing Thursday night with Ranger Suárez on the mound and a rested bullpen behind him. Strider is the strikeout king. He represents the toughest test.
But, after Game 3, the Phillies talked about the feeling they have here. “It’s riding the highs,” Schwarber said. “It’s not getting too high — but you want to ride it, right? You want to ride that momentum.” That was all it took Wednesday night — 21 minutes of hell.
“Momentum,” Turner said. “With the pitch clock this year, it’s been a little bit more of a momentum game. Baseball, in the past, hasn’t been as much momentum as other sports. I feel like this year it has been. Postseason, you kind of feel that momentum.”
The Phillies believe. Maybe Arcia helped them overcome a terrible loss. Maybe coming home was all they needed. Maybe Harper would have authored another signature moment without a subplot.
“I don’t think anybody needs any motivation right now, especially Harp,” Thomson said. “Harp is always motivated. I didn’t see him — did he look at him as he was running around the bases?”
“Well,” Thomson said, “I don’t know what to say about that.”
That, right now, is baseball in South Philadelphia.
(Top photo of Bryce Harper connecting on his three-run home run in the third inning: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)