WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper walked up the first-base line, carrying his bat in both his hands and then tossing it into the air as his furious rally to win the T-Mobile Home Run Derby was complete on Monday night.
Harper swatted nine home runs in the last 50 seconds of the finals, including one at the horn, to tie Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs at 18, before launching the final home run in bonus time to send Nationals Park into a frenzy.
It was a historic Derby: The eight participants combined for 221 dingers — the most in T-Mobile Home Run Derby history. Schwarber finished with 55 overall while Harper finished with 45.
Harper gave the 43,698 fans that packed into the ballpark the show they had so eagerly anticipated. They roared when he was introduced before the start of the Derby. Then again as he stepped to the plate and pointed to the D.C. flag bandanna around his head. As he started crushing the ball into the stands, Nationals Park became electric.
“That’s the kid you see out there tonight,” Harper said as he got emotional at the podium after the event. “I was fortunate to share that and show that to the fans. That wasn’t only for me and my family and everybody like that, but this is for the cook, the guy who that works the front and the people that work upstairs.
“I mean, this is [for] the whole city of D.C. I was very fortunate to be able to bring this back to them and do it here.”
• Bryce shows off amazing Home Run Derby style
With his father, Ron, pitching to him, Harper became just the third player to win the Home Run Derby in his home ballpark. He joined Todd Frazier for the Reds in 2015 and Ryne Sandberg of the Cubs in 1990, and Harper did so in front of a crowd he repeatedly called “incredible.”
It has been a while since Nationals fans have rallied behind Harper this passionately, and he received such mutual admiration and emotion from both sides. As the 89th All-Star Game arrives in D.C. with Harper at the center of it all, the conversation surrounding him usually begins at a first half not quite up to his usual standards followed by talks about his impending free agency this winter.
How can you not be romantic about baseball?
It also coincided with a more serious demeanor from Harper around the clubhouse and on the field, but it was evident how much fun Harper was having on Monday night as he created one of the most memorable moments in Nationals Park history.
“It’s unbelievable,” Harper said. “I think just having the crowd out there and really feeding off them. We have some of the best fans in all of baseball, and to be able to do that with my family out there, that’s an incredible moment, not only for me but for the organization and the Nationals fans. I’m very blessed and humbled.”
Harper dispatched Freddie Freeman of the rival Braves and Max Muncy of the Dodgers in the first two rounds, each by the score of 13-12, before squaring off against Schwarber in the final round. Schwarber launched 18 home runs in the final round and Harper faced an uphill battle when he got off to a slow start, with just four homers at his first timeout with 2:38 left on the clock. Then, after a second timeout, Harper found a groove with his father.
“He flipped a switch,” Nats left-hander Sean Doolittle said. “His swing, you could tell he was getting tired. He went somewhere else. That was unbelievable.”
That ability to go “somewhere else” is what separates Harper and why despite his struggles in the first half he is still widely considered one of the top players in MLB. He belted 45 homers overall, including the second, third and fourth longest homers on the night. Fifteen of those home runs went at least 440 feet and 12 left his bat with an exit velocity of at least 110 mph, the most in the Derby.
And with each Harper moonshot home run, the crowd grew louder in anticipation of the coming moment. His fellow All-Stars from the Nationals — Doolittle, Max Scherzer and manager Dave Martinez — all rallied behind him as well and Harper even got a pep talk from former Nats catcher Wilson Ramos, now of the Rays.
What a show by @Bharper3407! @Nationals Park was rockin! Ran out of gas at the end but hope you all enjoyed it as much as I did! Thank you for the opportunity and see you in Chicago!
It was the perfect moment for the Nationals and Harper, a union that began when Harper was drafted at 17 years old, as he once again shined on a bright stage at his home ballpark.
“You could tell this was on his radar,” Doolittle said. “He came here to win. He wasn’t just having fun with the hometown crowd. I don’t know, maybe the roll he got on tonight, that confidence you get from winning something like this in the way that he won it in front of the hometown fans. … I mean, yeah it’s a silly competition, but at the end of the day, that could be something that really jump-starts a guy.”