Harper homered to right center in his first at bat for the organization’s Triple-A team on Tuesday night as part of his rehabilitation mission following a broken left thumb.
Harper was the designated hitter and hit second for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs roster for the start of a six-game series against Gwinnett. He drilled the fifth pitch he saw from Atlanta Braves prospect Jared Shuster over the wall at Coca-Cola Park in front of what was reported to be a sold-out crowd of 10,001 fans.
He walked against Shuster in his second at bat to boos from the crowd who wanted Harper to take another big hack.
Gwinnett was amused after Harper’s solo homer cut the Stripers lead to 3-1, tweeting “Phillies prospect Bryce Harper is going far to cut the Stripers lead 3-1. Surely he looks like the one to watch in the future.”
Harper, who won his second NL MVP award last year, hasn’t played for the Phillies since breaking his left thumb on June 25. He is expected to play in Lehigh Valley through Saturday and possibly return to Philadelphia on Monday when the playoff-seeking Phillies begin a series in Arizona.
Harper, 29, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies in 2019, is hitting .318 with 15 homers, 48 RBI and a .985 OPS. Harper had already given up his position in right field earlier this season due to a small tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing elbow. He last played on the court in Miami on April 16.
The Phillies entered Tuesday tied for the last NL wildcard spot.
Harper was a smash hit for fans who turned out in season-high numbers to catch a glimpse of one of baseball’s most popular players.
The IronPigs merchandise store and ticket phone lines were buzzing each of the past two days in anticipation of his arrival. Will he play? Will the jerseys be on sale? What time do the doors open? A cashier looked out the window of the team’s store and noted, “I never saw at 5:12 just hundreds of people standing there.”
Merchandising manager Mike Luciano faced an early block when Harper decided to change his uniform number for his time in the minor league. Although it was an attraction, Harper didn’t want to distract the IronPigs and allowed reliever Jonathan Hennigan to retain his No. 3 while the slugger moved one up to No. 4.
“I ordered a lot of 3s,” Luciano said. “Fortunately, the 4 have arrived.”
Harper t-shirts were really hot in the press. About 90 minutes before the first pitch, about 150 Harper shirts were still as hot as a baseball hot dog as they quickly moved from print to merchandise store shelves. Blue No. 4 shirts sold for $28 and a limited number of custom jerseys went for $110, with sales sizzling at a better rate than the usual top sellers, which would be, Luciano said, “anything with bacon”.
“You put a slice of bacon on a hat, people love that,” Luciano said.
Allentown’s Chris Philpott bought two game tickets in the morning and grabbed a Harper t-shirt from the store. He typically attends about 12 IronPigs games a year and only had to snag seats for Tuesday night.
“I arrived early because my child was hoping to catch up with him on BP,” he said. “We saw all the cameras when we arrived. It’s going to be crazy tonight. Normally you don’t see people queuing when there’s no freebies this early before the game opens.”
Harper jumped onto the court, but that didn’t stop fans from clinging to the railing near the IronPigs’ dugouts hoping to catch a glimpse of the two-time NL MVP. TV stations were broadcasting live remotes and the press box was full of outlets normally reserved for the Phillies, playing at home on the turnpike against the Cincinnati Reds.
Two hours before the doors opened, only 80 tickets remained, most of them on the right field line. The stadium – which once hosted similar warm-ups for Pedro Martinez and Chase Utley – was packed on a night that went down to the dogs. Yes, in a nod to an evening dedicated to the area’s dog adoption efforts, Harper skipped the bacon-themed gear for an IronMutts jersey.