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PHILADELPHIA — Another night of pandemonium at the center of the baseball universe.

You know the story by now. The Philadelphia Phillies, a club that four months ago was knee-deep in quicksand, sinking deeper by the day under the weight of 242 million dollars’ worth expectations, won a postseason baseball game. Again. One more magical night in a month full of them.

Bryce Harper homered. So did four of his friends. Starting pitcher Ranger Suárez was brilliant. The 45,712 at the first World Series home game in Philadelphia since 2009 were predictably unhinged, louder than a rock show. And so, the rockstars in the red pinstripes crowd-surfed their way to an emphatic 7-0 win over the Astros. The Phillies are now two victories away from a most improbable championship.

But this joyous journey, this electrifying October, almost didn’t happen. In another year this whole beautiful blur would have been nothing more than a day dream. And that’s because the most pivotal part of this team is not Zack Wheeler or Kyle Schwarber or JT Realmuto or even Harper, whose nightly feats of wonder continue to drop jaws. No, you see, all of … this *gestures wildly* was only made possible by the adoption of the National League Designated Hitter — the real MVP of the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies.

Bryce Harper cranks a first-inning two-run home run

Bryce Harper cranks a first-inning two-run home run

Bryce Harper hits a two-run home run to give the Philadelphia Phillies an early 2-0 lead against the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the World Series. They went on to win 7-0.

Back in mid-April, Bryce Harper felt a twinge in his right elbow.

That’s not a good feeling for anyone, especially not for a ballplayer. Thankfully, the Phillies superstar could still swing a bat without too much discomfort. Throwing was a different matter.

As the team’s everyday right fielder, tossing a baseball with force and purpose was a key part of Harper’s daily responsibilities. And for the first time in his career, the man who once chucked 96 mph heat as a 16 year old couldn’t throw without significant pain in his dominant arm.

The short-term plan: Harper would rest his right arm, avoiding all throwing while continuing to hit in the middle of Philadelphia’s lineup at DH. The club would reevaluate in a few weeks. That all began on April 17th, just nine games into the season. Then, the reevaluation a fortnight later brought drearier news: Harper’s issue, originally diagnosed as a strain, was revealed to be a small tear in his ulnar collateral ligament.

For pitchers, that’s awful news; Tommy John surgery, then 12-18 months of recovery. The timeline for hitters is less dire, somewhere in the 5-7-month range, but still disastrous enough to require months on the shelf and completely alter the trajectory of a season. Surgery on Harper’s torn elbow would mean the season was over — for him, and most likely for the Phillies, too.

But he could still hit like Bryce Harper, so they DH’ed him. That kept his bat as a factor, something that would have been impossible a year earlier.

As part of the new CBA agreed upon ahead of time in March of 2022, National League teams would, for the first time in history — COVID-blemished 2020 season aside — be allowed a designated hitter. After over a century of NL pitchers trudging to the plate to either flail helplessly or bunt, they could finally spend their offensive innings elsewhere. Almost immediately, National League teams began to reconstruct their rosters in the image of their Senior Circuit counterparts. Not everyone loved their new reality.

“Honestly, I’m really not a fan.” Nick Castellanos shared after Game 3. “My favorite thing about the National League was the skill it took to manage and the strategy aspect that came in. I think [the DH in the NL] was really important to keep the purity of baseball alive”

The ironic part is that Castellanos, statistically regarded as a subpar outfield defender (October heroics aside), almost certainly earned an extra chunk of change this past offseason solely because of the DH. The Phillies dropped five years and $100 million on Castellanos in part because they planned to cycle him and fellow recent free-agent signee, Kyle Schwarber, through the designated hitter spot. Without the DH, the Phillies definitely don’t acquire both players, and maybe don’t acquire either.

“We probably wouldn’t have been able to sign Schwarber and Castellanos both.” Phillies President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski acknowledged on a recent episode of the Baseball Bar-B-Cast podcast. “Just no way we would have done it because we wouldn’t have had room to play both of them.”

Even with the advent of the NL DH, many a joke was made online regarding Philadelphia’s potentially abysmal outfield defense. What did they expect to happen? The club added two defensively limited sluggers to an already defensively disinclined roster, within two days of one another. Even some of the Phillies players wondered where everyone would line up in the field.

“When we signed both [Schwarber and Castellanos],” rookie shortstop Bryson Stott told FOX Sports. “I honestly thought we were gonna play Bryce in center field. But then I was like ‘ehhh no. No way.'”

Stott is right. Harper didn’t play a single inning in center in ‘21 and has only three starts there as a Phillie. When he joined the organization before the 2019 season, Harper made it crystal-clear that he’d like to avoid the centerfield pastures if at all possible. John Fogerty, eat your heart out. As Stott, his spring training roomie and long-time pal, said: it was never going to happen.

Still, an unexpected positional uprooting came calling for the face of the Phillies. At first, the transition to DH was difficult for Harper, who only started there twice during his seven-year stint in D.C. And despite his mercurial defensive play, Harper has always taken pride in his outfield play ever since the Nats told him to put the catcher’s gear aside. Maybe one day, in the twilight of his career, he might be forced into a more docile lifestyle, sure. But having turned 30 this October, Harper clearly wishes he could still contribute on both sides of the ball and believes his old defensive responsibilities allowed him to maintain better focus throughout a game.

“It’s been a grind for me.” Harper revealed in early May about his new role. “Just worrying about hitting all day, instead of going out there and playing both sides of the ball.”

At some point, things changed. Harper learned to see his situation as a blessing, not a curse. He leaned into his obsession with hitting and began hyper-focusing on his at-bats, often going over video mid-game with Phils hitting coach Kevin Long. Whenever his spot in the order is due up the next inning, Harper heads to the underground batting cage to take some swings; a ritual he’s continued even during these tense October ballgames.

“Harp spends all day thinking about his ABs.” said reserve infielder Nick Maton.

“The fans believe in us and we believe in them.”

"The fans believe in us and we believe in them."

Phillies slugger Bryce Harper shouts out the home fans for making it out after the game was postponed yesterday and says the team is driven by the fans’ belief in them.

When he’s on the bench, watching the Phillies on defense, Harper doesn’t let his attention wander. He’s almost never on the top step, chatting it up with his teammates. His mind is on the game, on his next AB. One Phillie loosely compared it to the laser-focused energy a starting pitcher carries themselves with in the dugout in between innings.

“He knows he doesn’t have a choice right now,” Stott explained. “So you’ve got to find a way to make it work. And he has.”

Whatever Harper has done to stay locked in is obviously working. So far this postseason, he’s hitting .382/.414/.818 with six homers, a 1.232 OPS and more extra base hits than strikeouts. It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive playoff performances in baseball history.

And it’s all thanks to the DH.

Imagine if Harper’s exact injury had happened a year earlier, when the Phillies couldn’t have moved him to DH. Either he plays through incredible discomfort, or, more likely, gets surgery in May and misses the majority of the season. Any Phillies fan who, like Castellanos, loved the tactical intrigue of old National League baseball or enjoyed the tomfoolery of the rare pitcher home run must have a different opinion now.

No DH? No Harper. No Harper? No Phillies October magic. That means no “Dancing on My Own”; no celebratory clubhouse cigarettes; no hilariously wet Brandon Marsh; no sold-out crowds so loud they register as seismic activity.

“Yeah, the timing of the DH is just incredible.” back-up catcher Garrett Stubbs said. “Sounds like destiny to me.”

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan living in New York City, and thus, he leads a lonely existence most Octobers. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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