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Bryce Harper shines as Phillies aim for second straight World Series

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Bryce Harper has manhandled postseason pressure with the ease of one of his swings — bat tucked behind his helmet, short ground step, then, whack! — against a slider.

He’s crushed it.

The drama lies in the postseason not so much in what Harper will do once he digs into the batter’s box, but more in what kind of kitschy T-shirt design will surface from each game-changing hit that rings both an hydraulic Liberty Bell and the ears of 45,000 diehard and dyed-in-red Phillies fans.

Maybe a hyped Harper will bellow, “ This is my house!” standing on second base after a go-ahead double.

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Or perhaps he won’t say anything at all, just deliver an icy death stare — two, actually — to a sheepish shortstop who poked Harper with a mocking “Attaboy!”

Harper has turned his Phillies teammates into fans, as they step on the dugout steps and hug the railing for his at-bats, the best seat in the house for the inevitable big moment.

“Any time he goes up there, it’s kind of must-watch TV,” second baseman Bryson Stott said.

Harper is Mr. Red October, who, after listening to sports talk radio like any good Phillies fan on his commute, arrives at the clubhouse with an intense focus — “it’s a locked-in look, I guess,” says Stott — that spills into field. He a $330 million bargain, in large part from a resume that screams Philly’s greatest clutch athlete; from his NL Championship Series MVP honors a year ago, to the fastest return in baseball from Tommy John surgery, to a speedy transition to first base. He hit three homers and batted .462 in a four-game NL Division Series win over Atlanta that moved the Phillies on the cusp of a second straight World Series trip.

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“I signed here for a reason, to do everything I could to bring back a trophy to this town,” Harper said. “I got chills thinking about it, because that’s what it’s all about. I absolutely love this place.”

Philly loves him back.

They can show their thanks for him again on Monday when Harper turns 31, the same day the Phillies host Arizona in the NLCS opener.

Harper expects to play in that one after he briefly made Philly lose a breath when he clutched his surgically-repaired right elbow after a Game 4 collision at first base. Harper finished the game, said he was fine and had just stung his funny bone. He flexed his beer muscles in the clubhouse when — shirtless, naturally — he dumped a beer over his head with his right arm.

Inside the jubilant clubhouse, the Phillies had their fun, spraying Harper with beer and gleefully yelling, “Attaboy, Harper! Attaboy!”

Braves shortstop Orlando Arcia had gleefully shouted, “Attaboy, Harper” in the wake of a Game 2 win that ended when Harper was doubled up on the bases, a wisecrack Arcia acknowledged he never intended for the Phillies to hear.

Harper doubled down that his baserunning decision was correct, the aggressiveness just part of his fiery makeup.

“Me, personally, I don’t think it was a miscue,” Harper said. “But I took a chance, and (centerfielder) Michael Harris made an incredible play. I’m not going to change the way I play because of a moment or situation.”

Harper then stared down Arcia on his each of his two Game 3 home run trots (nine total in two Phillies’ postseasons).

“I didn’t really see it, but I’m sure there’s pictures somewhere,” Stott said.

Yes, the homers launched the shot memed ’round the world, a message sent that you don’t tug on No. 3’s jersey.

The Phillies are more than just Harper, of course.

They boast arguably the best 1-2 starting rotation among the four teams left in the postseason with Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola.

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Trea Turner became the first Phillies player with four hits in a postseason game when he went 4 for 4 in Game 4. Against the Braves in Games 3 and 4, Nick Castellanos became the first player to hit multiple homers in consecutive postseason games.

Philadelphia’s lethal lineup has led to few ho-hum postseason wins among the 16 over the last two seasons.

They slugged six homers!

It’s a Stott Slam!

They scored six in the ninth to win it!

It’s been riveting October baseball. Every game (yes, even their losses are eventful ).

The topper, Rob Thomson, is the second manager in MLB history to reach the LCS in each of his first two seasons.

“I think that he’s done pretty consistent at remaining relaxed and understanding that the talent is there to win in the locker room,” Castellanos said. “If we don’t win, it’s not because there’s a managerial bad decision. It’s because we didn’t play well enough.”

Harper was hailed as a baseball prodigy since before he was a teen, hailed as baseball’s version of LeBron James or Tiger Woods. The Las Vegas sensation blossomed into a star and an MVP with the Washington Nationals. Then came a second life as a postseason conqueror in Philadelphia.

“When I was 10 years old, 11 years old, I played in so many big tournaments and big lights,” Harper said. “And I mean, you guys couldn’t imagine the pressure of the situations or going to JUCO early and having everybody in the world relying on you to be the number one pick. That was hard.

“You know, 17 years old, 16 years old, trying to be the number one pick, knowing that if you’re not, you’re a failure. So that’s pressure, you know. Trying to make all the money you can to get your family out of an area or set them up for life, that’s pressure. This is all cake, man. This is so much fun.”

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb