After Saturday’s doings and undoings, the second-winningest regular season major league team is on the threshold of a potential World Series date with the eleventh-winningest regular season team. That’s about the full extent to which the Astros (the former) have anything in common with the Phillies (the latter).
Say what you will about Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s postseason array. I’ve said my share and then some. Permit me to share this, from an essay I wrote for the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America’s Here’s the Pitch newsletter, following the ends of each league’s wild card series:
Reviewing the 1948 national elections, for a spoken-word album hit called I Can Hear It Now, broadcast news titan Edward R. Murrow observed wryly that the people’s pulse was taken, they’d been told for whom they’d vote and by how many votes, “and, yet—it couldn’t hurt to watch the campaign, anyhow.” Postseason baseball this year is somewhat like that.
We haven’t been told unto death who’s going to claim the Promised Land and in how many games. (Yet.) And, it’s going to take a little bit longer thanks to a lot more artificially inflated competition this time around. But it couldn’t hurt to watch the games, anyhow.
That seems truer now, especially with regard to the National League Championship Series, in which the Phillies awoke Sunday morning one win shy of the aforesaid World Series date. It couldn’t hurt to watch them tangle with the Padres, also known as the tenth-winningest regular-season major league team, anyhow.
So far, it hasn’t hurt. Unless you’re a Padre fan.
Just when you think the Padres are going to piledrive the Phillies into the ground and back, these not-so-phutile Phillies find ways, means, and the moxie to overthrow the Padres and make it stick. For example, NLCS. Game Four Saturday night, overthrowing and thumping the Padres, 10-6.
The noise in San Diego’s Petco Park and Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park has been enough to make you think you’ve been time warped back to the peak of Beatlemania. The Phillies didn’t needed guitars, basses, and drums to do that. All they needed was to remind themselves—as first baseman Rhys Hoskins said they did, after the Padres jumped them for a four-run top of the first Saturday night—that they still had 27 outs with which to work.
Especially on a night manager Rob Thomson planned a bullpen game but had to be very careful not to let himself be forced into potential overwork assignments out of a couple of his bigger bullpen bulls, Seranthony Domínguez in particular. As things turned out, the Phillies didn’t need Sir Anthony to ride in, on his white horse or aboard any other means of transportation.
Thumping the Padres after getting thumped in the first inning can give you that kind of security entering Game Five, a game the Phillies expect Zack Wheeler—who manhandled the Padres over seven innings and one measly hit in Game One in San Diego—to start and mastermind. Facing that plus the Phillies’ all-and-a-little-of-everything bats might mean no more baseball in San Diego after Sunday afternoon.
But neither the Phillies nor the Padres, or anyone else in the ballpark or in front of a television set, expected that neither starting pitcher would get out of the first inning alive for the first time in postseason play since it happened to Guy Bush (Cubs) and Johnny Allen (Yankees)—on the day Iraq first became an independent nation. (Game Four, 1932 World Series, if you’re scoring at home.)
The Padres opened by making Phillies starter Bailey Falter live down to his surname, with Manny Machado hitting one into the left field seats with two outs, followed by a two-run double (Brandon Drury) and an RBI single (Ha-Seong Kim). Often as not that kind of opening inning endures. When the runs are scarce enough, as they’ve been this postseason for the most part, that kind of opening holds to the final curtain.
Then Hoskins smashed a two-run homer atop Kyle Schwarber’s leadoff single off Padres starter Mike Clevinger in the bottom of the first. After J.T. Realmuto walked to follow up, Bryce Harper yanked a double to deep right center field to send Realmuto home and yank the Phillies back to within a run. (Yes, that’s ten extra-base hits in ten postseason games this time around for him.)
Bryson Stott tied things at four with an RBI single in the bottom of the fourth. The bad news from there: Juan Soto, who’s been having his issues in the field this set and who hadn’t yet done much of the bombing for which he was known well enough when the Padres dealt for him big at the regular season trade deadline, finally struck big with a one-out, tie-breaking, two-run homer in the top of the fifth.
Leave it to Hoskins to see and raise in the bottom of the inning. With one out, one aboard, and Padres lefthander Sean Manaea left in inexplicably to face the righthanded Hoskins, in Manaea’s first postseason appearance following a season in which he’d lost his slot in the starting rotation, Padres manager Bob Melvin didn’t even think about one of his bullet-firing bullpen bulls and left Manaea in to face the consequences.
“I was going to try to get him one time around the lineup,” said Melvin, who’d also managed Manaea in Oakland including the lefthander’s 2018 no-hitter. “I thought his stuff was better. He had 95. He had swings and misses when he got into the zone, but he couldn’t locate it.”
The consequences came when Hoskins hit a hanging sinker over the left center field fence, followed by Realmuto wringing out another walk and Harper drilling another RBI double, this time into left center, and the Phillies re-took a lead they wouldn’t surrender. With or without a fight.
“We knew with a bullpen game, the possibility of multiple guys having to be put in positions that they’re not used to being in, that we were going to have to slug,” said Hoskins postgame. “We did that tonight.”
Harper’s double finally prodded Melvin to get Manaea the hell out of there, in favour of Luis García—most assuredly not the Astros’ righthander who combined to shut the Mariners out, sweeping their American League division series. But Nick Castellanos greeted García with a first-pitch, opposite-field RBI single. Welcome to the party.
The Schwarbinator did García worse with two out in the next inning, beginning the Phillies’ insurance purchase with a launch over the center field fence. Mammoth enough, but not quite that close to the absolute nuke he detonated in Game One in San Diego. Steven Wilson took over the mound for the Padres for the bottom of the seventh, and Realmuto overtook him leading off, sending a 1-1 slider that hung up enough for the Phillies catcher to hang it a few rows into the left field seats.
The only thing quiet about Game Four from there was the play on the field, both sides’ bullpens keeping each other’s bats from getting any more obnoxious. The Citizens Bank audience was just as noisy the rest of the way as they’d been when the Phillies picked up, dusted off, and started their return from the living dead in the bottom of the first.
Compared to all that, the Astros waxing the Yankees in the Bronx, 5-0, in their own American League Championship Series Game Three was about as thrilling as a seaweed salad. Even the reminder that the Astros have never lost a postseason game when scoring five runs or more seemed a big case of big deal.
From Hall of Famer-to-be Justin Verlander in Game One through Cristian Javier keeping them quiet in Game Three, the Astros have gotten just enough at the plate. They even accept Yankee gifts, such as a grave misread between Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader playing a first-inning pop that was followed at once by Chas McCormick bouncing a two-run homer off the top of the right field fence, into the seats, and off Yankee ace Gerrit Cole while he was at it.
That plus the rest of the game reminded one and all that, by hook or crook, the Astros fear no team. Certainly not the Yankees, whom they beat in seven in the 2017 ALCS and six in the 2019 ALCS. Maybe not even if these Yankees could send Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, and the 2014 edition of Madison Bumgarner up against them. Maybe.
The odds don’t favour the Yankees Sunday night, either. They’ve scored (count ’em) four runs all ALCS long so far. Their ALCS OPS is eleven points lower than the Astros’ ALCS slugging percentage alone. If these Yankees can’t hit in this ALCS—it seems their season-long dependency on record-breaking but now-slumping Judge has begun to slice their own baloney—the flip side is that these Astros can pitch as well as they hit.
If the Empire Emeritus gets waxed in Game Four in front of their home audience, the noise might be as loud as Philadelphia but it won’t be the kind the Yankees want recorded for posterity. (Especially not involving free agent-to-be Judge’s potential final game as a Yankee.)
The Phillies have the opposite problem. The Game Five noise in the Bank may reach the Omega Quadrant if they beat the Padres Sunday afternoon. Unlike the Astros and the Yankees, you can call both the Phillies and the Padres many things, but boring isn’t one of them. Whatever Philadelphia’s noise ordinances are, you won’t find one cop alive willing to enforce them.