Now they have to do the impossible

Kyle Tucker, Chas McCormick

With Kyle Tucker backing him, Chas McCormick—who grew up a Phillies fan 35 miles away from Citizens Bank Park—made the possible catch of the Series off J.T. Realmuto’s eighth-inning drive to the right center field scoreboard wall in World Series Game Five Thursday night. 

This year’s Phillies, meet the 2019 Nationals. Sort of. Those Nats won every World Series game against that edition of Astros on the road including four in Houston. These Phillies split in Houston, then could win only once in their own cozy, stop-sign-shaped, noisy playpen. Now they have to do the kind of impossible those Nats did. If they can.

They have to win Game Six Saturday and then Game Seven Sunday. And if Game Five is evidence, they won’t get it without putting up a terrific battle. Better than the battle between the two that ended in a squeaker of a 3-2 Astros win Thursday night. Better than they were built to be.

Better than just half a collection of sluggers and a bullpen that can hang with any bullpen in the business. And enough to keep the Astros from saving themselves—until a forgotten Astro at first base and an Astro outfielder who grew up a Phillies fan saved the Astros’ lives in the bottom of the Game Five eighth and ninth, respectively.

Trey Mancini was a trade deadline acquisition from the Orioles but an 0-for-18 afterthought this postseason. Chas McCormick grew up 35 miles from Citizens Bank Park and never forgot the bloody nose then-Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand incurred making a similar catch against the center field fence.

Mancini now found himself at first base after Astros veteran Yuli Gurriel had to come out a half inning after a collision resulting in a rundown out as he got trapped between third and the plate also resulted in a woozy head. With two out and Astros closer Ryan Pressly asked for an almost unheard-of-for-him five-out save, Kyle Schwarber loomed at the plate.

Schwarber electrified the ballpark in the bottom of the first when, with the Astros up 1-0 already, he drilled an 0-1 pitch from starter Justin Verlander into the right field seats to tie it. Now, with two out, first and third, and the Phillies back to within a run in the bottom of the eighth, Schwarber drilled one up the first base line on a single hop. The shot had extra bases down the line and the tying run home at least stamped on it.

Until it didn’t. Playing practically on the line as it was, Mancini hit his knees like a supplicant in prayer and the ball shot right into his mitt. While he was there, Mancini stepped on the pad. Side retired. In one flash Mancini went from self-made afterthought to the Astros’ man of the hour.

It’d take something even more stupefying to rob Mancini of that status. “That ball gets by him,” Pressly said postgame, “we’re looking at a different game.”

Something even more stupefying came along in the bottom of the ninth. When Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto sent Pressly’s 1-1 slider high and far toward the right center field scoreboard wall, with at least a double and likely more the likely result, the wall notorious for creating odd rebounds.

Until it wasn’t. Until McCormick ran to his left, took a flying leap, and snapped the ball into his glove a second before he hit the wall and landed on the track, the ball still securely in his glove, and by his own postgame admission stared up at whatever he could see of the Bank crowd he’d just snapped silent.

“I wanted to lay there longer,” he admitted postgame. “If it were the last out, I would have laid there all night.”

Pressly’s jaw fell as he saw McCormick nail the catch. As he remembered after the game, the only thing he could think as his hands clutched his head in wonder was, “Holy [you-know-what].”

Until that moment, the Astros and the Phillies wrestled and tussled like alley cats all Game Five long. The bad news was that the Phillies, the Show’s best on the season with runners in scoring position, extended to a third-longest World Series string of 0-for-20 with men in such position.

“[S]ometimes you go through times when you don’t hit with runners in scoring position,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson postgame. “Then, three days later, everybody’s getting hits. So we just got to keep battling, that’s all.”

The Phillies can’t wait three days for hits. They have two days before it might be curtains. Three days maximum, after squandering what half the world thought would be the remarkable and ear-splitting home field advantage they’d stolen with a Series-opening split in Houston.

The worse news Thursday began when Astros’ rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña started the scoring when he singled up the pipe to send Jose Altuve (leadoff double, taking third on Phillies center fielder Brandon Marsh’s carom bobble) home in the top of the first.

After Schwarber’s ballpark-jolting bomb leading off the bottom, both sides wrestled each other’s starting pitchers, Verlander and Noah Syndergaard, into and out of a few more dicey jams—especially the Phillies loading the bases on Verlander with two out in the second before the future Hall of Fame righthander struck Rhys Hoskins out swinging rather violently.

Syndergaard settled admirably after the first inning run and until Syndergaard—who’d settled admirably after the first run and retired nine straight from that score forward. Verlander escaped another jam in the third, which might have been another bases-loaded escape but for Peña leaping to steal a base hit off Nick Castellanos’s hard liner, but after Alec Bohm spanked a single past shortstop to follow, Verlander got Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott to pop out to right for the side.

But Syndergaard—no longer the bullet-throwing Thor of old thanks to injuries, illnesses, and finally Tommy John surgery—ran out of luck in the top of the fourth, when Peña sent a 1-2 service into the left field seats. Connor Brogdon relieved him and shook off Alex Bregman’s one-out double while striking out the side.

Verlander pitched as clean a fourth as you could ask of a 39-year-old righthander with or without his particular career resume, then had to perform another escape act in the fifth after striking two out to open. Bryce Harper lined one to deep right that Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker bobbled toward the corner, ensuring Harper’s double. Castellanos wrestled Verlander to a full count before popping out to left center for the side.

From there, the bullpens wrestled each other. Then, top of the seventh, came Gurriel’s leadoff double. One out and a wild pitch later came McCormick with Gurriel on third. McCormick bounced one to third, with the infield in, and beginning with Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm they had Gurriel trapped like the top man on the FBI’s old ten most wanted list.

Bohm threw to Realmuto. Realmuto threw to Stott. Stott threw to first baseman Hoskins joining the party just in case, and Hoskins reached to tag Gurriel while tumbling over the veteran Astro. Gurriel landed awkwardly on his right knee as it was, but Hoskins’s knee on the tumble also jolted Gurriel’s head.

The elder first baseman—whose string of 48 straight postseason plate appearances without striking out ended at Brogdon’s hands in the fourth—managed to play his position in the top of the eighth but that was all he had left after the collision. “A little pain,” the sleepy-eyed first baseman tweeted postgame, A little pain but the win made my knee feel better fast . . . I will get some treatment to get ready for Saturday, thank you for the well wishes.”

But Altuve and Peña partnered on building the third Astro run in the top of the eighth, Altuve with a leadoff walk off Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, and Peña shooting a base hit through the infield the other way to right, Altuve running on the pitch and helping himself to third easily. David Robertson relieved Dominguez but could only watch helplessly as Hoskins knocked Alvarez’s grounder up the line down and tag the Astro left fielder out while Altuve scampered home.

The best Robertston could do in the inning was keep the damage to a single run. He couldn’t stop the Astros’ defensive acrobatics in the bottom of the eighth and ninth. Nobody could. And even after McCormick’s robbery of Realmuto in the bottom of the ninth, the Phillies weren’t dead yet.

Pressly hit Harper in the foot on a 2-1 pitch. Up stepped Castellanos, who’d spent much of the game keeping his free-swinging in check and timing himself to a few hard hit outs and, then, the eighth-inning walk that turned into him scoring the second Phillies run on Jean Segura’s opposite-field base hit.

Now he wrestled Pressly to a full count with the Bank crowd as loud as conceivable. Then he bounced one to shortstop. Peña picked it clean, threw to first even more clean, and the Astros had it in the Bank. And Verlander—whom the Phillies abused in Game One—got credit for his first World Series win. Ever.

He’d sported an 0-6 won-lost record in the Series lifetime until Thursday night. And he  admitted postgame that Schwarber’s leadoff launch—the first such homer ever by a Phillie in postseason play—woke him up post haste.

“[A]s a starting pitcher, been there, done that,” Verlander told reporters after shaking off a particularly profound rookie-style celebratory shower in the clubhouse and savouring every moment of it. “It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight.

“You have to rely on the hundreds of starts and thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before,” the righthander continued. “It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of this game, by any means. Let’s see what happens.”

What happened from there handed Verlander a win as moral as it was baseball and the Astros a Series return ticket home. And the Phillies—who’d gotten thatclose to fully avenging their having been no-hit in Game Four—another challenge to meet and conquer. If they can.

“What’s a better storybook ending than if we can go there and win this in Game Seven?” Castellanos asked postgame, well aware that the Phillies need to win Game Six first. So did the 2019 Nationals, in a Series in which neither team won at home but the Nats had to win the four they won in the Astros’ noisy-enough cape.

“We’re here, I think, because we trusted ourselves this far,” said Hoskins thoughtfully enough. “I don’t see why there is any reason to change that.”

They’re going to need that if they want just to come out of Game Six alive enough to play one more day. These Astros won’t exactly let them have it without making them work shields up, phasers on stun, for every degree of it.

The Phlogging Phillies

Alec Bohm

Only 119 years after Jimmy Sebring hit the first one, off Hall of Famer Cy Young, Philadelphia’s Alec Bohm hits the 1,000th home run in World Series history off Houston’s Lance McCullers, Jr.

The mound can be the loneliest place on a baseball field at either of two extremes. One is when a pitcher is within the final out of consummating a perfect game. The other is when he’s getting murdered on that hill, in any game, never mind a World Series contest.

Lance McCullers, Jr. actually pitched two and a thirds clean innings in Game Three Tuesday night. It took two two-run innings him to get there, and it took two murderous swings to finish his night in the wrong page of the record book, on the absolute wrong end of a 7-0 Phillies win.

But don’t suggest, as the Fox Sports broadcast team and enough of the Twittersphere did, that McCullers might have been tipping his pitches. The Phillies sat so hard on his breaking balls and waited him out so patiently it seemed impossible to believe the guy who returned from a flexor pronator injury to post a 2.36 ERA since August was as vulnerable as he was in Game Three.

“I got whupped,” McCullers said emphatically postgame. “End of story. We got beat up pretty bad, and I got beat pretty bad. I obviously wanted to pitch well, and pitch much better than I did, but at the end of the day, all I can do at this point is get ready to go for a potential Game Seven.”

It may not be unreasonable to question whether the Series gets quite that far, after the Phillies—satisfied to split the opening pair in Houston and come home to the raucous sound of their stop sign-shaped playpen—blasted McCullers in three out of the four and a third innings the righthander managed to pitch.

And, hit the 1,000th home run in World Series play since the Series was introduced in 1903 while they were at it.

Bryce Harper, bottom of the first, with Kyle Schwarber aboard (leadoff walk) and two out—saw only one pitch in that plate appearance, a slightly hanging knuckle curve ball. He hung it two thirds of the way up the lower right center field seats. That made for the sixth time this postseason that Harper sent first pitches flying long distance. It also made for him starting his first World Series game ever in front of a home audience with a bang.

Alec Bohm, leading off bottom of the second—He got a little whispering from Harper before he checked in at the plate leading off. Then he got a McCullers sinker to open that didn’t sink quite enough off the middle of the plate and lined it into the left field seats. Series home run number one thousand, since Pittsburgh’s Jimmy Sebring legged an inside-the-park job off Hall of Famer Cy Young in 1903’s Game One.

Brandon Marsh—Two evil-looking strikeouts later, Marsh hit a 2-0 slider high enough above Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker . . . and in and out of a young fan’s glove above the right field wall. An umpires’ review confirmed what Marsh just finished running out: The fan hadn’t crossed the top of the wall when the ball bounded off the wall top and into and out of his glove back onto the field. Home run. Jeffrey Maier remains singular in fan infamy.

The Schwarbinator—After McCullers pitched two three-and-three innings and looked to be settling in well enough, Schwarber came up with Marsh aboard (one-out line single to right) in the bottom of the fifth and detonated a 1-2 changeup far over the center field fence. Into a greenery of Forest of Arbor Vitae trees.

Rhys Hoskins—Immediately following Schwarber’s nuke, Hoskins wrestled McCullers to a 2-2 count, then drove it about five rows into the left field seats. It also drove McCullers out of the game at last, not to mention driving Astros manager Dusty Baker toward the second-guessers’ booth.

“Hitting itself is a contagious thing without the crowd,” said Hoskins postgame. “But, you throw in the crowd and the noise and the cheers, and I think it just makes it more contagious.” And, noisy. If they’d used a decibel meter in Citizens Bank Park Tuesday night, it would have been broken after the game’s first pitch.

That’s when Phillies starter Ranger Suárez threw Jose Altuve an outside sinker that the Astros’ mighty mite lined the other way to right, and Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos ran in hard before catching it as he fell into a slide. “When Castellanos made that play in right field,” said Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, “that was about as loud as I’ve ever heard that stadium.”

“It actually made me think about it,” said Suárez through his interpreter. “If we start like this, then we’re only going to finish even better.” How right he proved to be, even if his five smooth innings pitched turned out to be the footnote to the Phillies’ phlogging.

But why hadn’t Baker gone to his bullpen when the Astros were down by a more manageable four, on a night McCullers didn’t exactly have his A-game? Particularly remembering that the Yankees forced McCullers to battle in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, even if the Yankees didn’t wreak half the Phillies’ Game Three havoc?

Why did Baker let his man stay in long enough to set his own record of surrendering five bombs in a single Series game, enabling the Phillies to be the first in Series history to hit five bombs in five innings of a single game?

“The thought process,” Baker said postgame, “was the fact that he had had two good innings, two real good innings. Then they hit a blooper, a homer, and then I couldn’t get anybody loose. It was my decision.”

Baker brought Ryne Stanek in to stop the fifth inning bleeding and Stanek did his job by striking out the two Phillies he faced to end the inning. Then Baker went to Jose Urquidy, usually a starter but tasked as the long man out of the Astro pen for the postseason.

If the mound itself can be the loneliest place, the second-loneliest might be the long man’s status when his team’s played nine postseason games without need of a bullpen long man. Urquidy was almost the Astro pitching staff’s forgotten man until Tuesday night.

And it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect him to show enough rust when he arrived and went to work, even though Urquidy himself told reporters postgame that he works every day, a little warming up pregame, a lot of mental preparation during, just in case.

Except for inning-opening baserunners he wild pitched to second and third in the bottom of the sixth, though, Urquidy managed somehow to keep the carnage from metastasising the rest of the way. Making Baker look just a little foolish for letting McCullers start to see the Phillie lineup a third time in the fifth despite his two clean preceding innings.

“It was kind of mind-boggling,” Baker said, “because he doesn’t give up homers. He usually keeps the ball in the ballpark . . . What can I say? The line score looks bad, but they were just hitting us.”

“Give those guys credit,” McCullers said.

So what did Harper tell Bohm, before the Phillie third baseman checked in and laid McCullers’s first second-inning pitch to waste? Neither Harper nor Bohm would say when asked. “Nothing,” Bohm said, with a little grin.

“I think anytime you have information, you want to be able to give that to your teammates at any point,’’ was just about all Harper would say of it. “So anytime I can help my teammates, throughout the whole season we’ve done that.”  But helping his teammates also sent Harper yet another place into the record books.

His last plate appearance in the Bank prior to Game Three ended in the opposite-field, mud-drenched two-run homer he hit that ended up sending the Phillies to the Series in the first place. Then he detonated the first pitch he saw in the Bank Tuesday night. Nobody before him finished his LCS work at home with a bomb and started his World Series work at home with a bomb a week later.

“He’s a showman,” Realmuto said. “That’s what he is. There’s no doubt about that. He lives for these moments. He really feeds off this crowd and the emotions that they bring. And he doesn’t ever seem to let us down in those moments.”

Phillie shortstop Bryson Scott could only marvel at the early bombings, the first time five of a team’s first twenty batters ever homered in a single Series game at all, never mind against the same man on the mound.

“Ooh,” Stott began. “Bohm’s was cool. Line drive . . . Schwarber’s, though . . . Well, Rhys’ was cool, too. But Schwarber’s, into the trees . . . Bryce’s was awesome, too . . . But Schwarber’s into the trees . . . Oh, and Marsh’s was cool . . .The tree ball, though.” Based on the Gospel According to Stott, the Schwarbinator went tree for Game Three.

But Bohm hit the record books in a way that nobody else possibly can. One hundred and nineteen years after the Series first. Not the Bryce that’s right. Not the Monster Marsh. Not Rhys’s Pieces. Not the Schwarbinator.

The only thing the Bohmbardier seemed able to say after the game was no, man, we might be built like the ancient Strategic Air Command, but we’re really just the Third Army in disguise. “Guys aren’t trying to go up there and just hit homers. We’re hitters. Guys were working at-bats. Guys are taking singles the other way. And sometimes they make a mistake and we get ‘em.”

Sometimes, says the guy who connected on the first Game Three pitch he saw. I just hope the fan who came up with the Bohmb in the stands was told of the millenial milestone and sends it right to the Hall of Fame. Where it’s displayed behind a tiny plaque engraved, only, “Bohm’s Away!”

AL dragons vs. NL dragonslayers

Houston Astros

The Astros celebrate winning the AL pennant Sunday night in New York. The AL’s dragons get to tangle with some NL dragonslayers from Philadelphia in the World Series.

Maybe the Astros would have found ways to beat the Yankees yet again regardless. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Aaron Judge could have tied Game Four of the American League Championship Series with one intercontinental ballistic launch and sent it to extra innings.

The Astros won their third American League pennant at the Yankees’ expense Sunday night in Yankee Stadium. They did it in 2017, 2019, and now this year. But if Game Four proves to be free agent-in-waiting Judge’s final game as a Yankee, it couldn’t have ended more ignominously for him and for them.

The engaging, still-young man who pushed Roger Maris aside as the AL’s single-season home run champion, already 1-for-14 in the ALCS when he checked in against Astros reliever Ryan Pressly with two out in the bottom of the ninth, swung on a slider somewhat outside on 1-2.

The guy who can hit a ball of yarn past the Van Allen Belt grounded it right back to Pressly, who speared it one-handed coming off the mound toward first base. Pressly trotted a few steps further before underhanding it to Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel for game, set, sweep, and the Yankees heading home for the winter.

It continued the second-longest Yankee pennant drought since 1979-1994. It made the Leaning Tower of 161st Street resemble the giant who’d carried an entire town on his shoulders from one end of the hemisphere to the other only to collapse under its weight at long enough last.

“I could sit here and make excuses about if a ball falls this way, a ball drops that way or a pitch is made here and there,” Judge lamented after Game Four ended. “But what it comes down to is they just played better than us.”

The Yankees spoiled themselves leaning on Judge as their in-house extraterrestrial. The Astros, say what you still will about them, didn’t make that mistake. They didn’t lean too heavily upon any single big man, either winning the second-most games in the regular season or sweeping their way to the coming World Series.

Leaning that heavily upon one big man merely held the Yankees’ other issues aloft too high. Their bullpen was injured and inconsistent. They lost key secondary elements such as D.J. LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi to injuries. Anthony Rizzo and Giancarlo Stanton weren’t consistent second bananas to the Judge Show. If Harrison Bader proved a pleasant surprise at the October plate, it wasn’t enough to overcome Judge and Stanton combining to go 6-for-32 the entire postseason.

Oh, the Astros had some heroics of their own, of course. Yordan Alvarez looked like Paul Bunyan earlier in the postseason, enough so that enough thought he alone might be the one to blast the Astros forward. But he was awful quiet in the ALCS. There lay the Astros’ real secret weapon this time, though: if one guy falters, there are others too happy to pick up the slack.

Rookie Jeremy Peña said, “Sure, no problem-o.” A kid whose regular-season on-base percentage fell well enough short of just .300 tied Game Four in the top of the third, with two on aboard back-to-back inning-opening walks, when an ailing Yankee starting pitcher Nestor Cortes hung a cutter and Peña hung it down the left field line and over the fence fair past the foul pole.

“It’s surreal,” said Peña postgame, after he was named the ALCS’s Most Valuable Player. “You dream about this stuff when you’re a kid.” Nobody among his teammates cared two pins that he was a rookie stealing the thunder.

“If you’re in this clubhouse, you’re one of us,” said Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros’ Game Four starting pitcher. “You don’t need to earn your stripes with us. You don’t need service time. If you’re in this clubhouse and you’re wearing this uniform, you’re one of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re here for a day or you’re here for seventeen years.”

“It’s been a blessing to play with this group,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who’d sent Peña home with what proved the insurance run in the seventh, after yet another fielding mishap that came to define the Yankees’ postseason collapse the way their deflation from 15.5 games atop the AL East to a 10-18 August defined their regular-season descent from surreal to mere division champion.

Alvarez may not have provided strategic bombing in this ALCS, but after Yankee second baseman Gleyber Torres flipped what should have been a seventh inning-ending double play-starting toss past shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa, he re-tied the game at five each by swatting Peña home with an RBI single off Yankee reliever Jonathan Loaisaga.

Just like that, the Yankees handed the Astros the means to end the lead Bader handed his team in the bottom of the sixth, when the former Cardinal caught hold of Hector Neris’s first two-out pitch to him and sent it into the left field seats.

When Gurriel clutched Pressly’s underhand toss for the final series out, it handed baseball its first day with both pennants clinched since 1992. It handed the Astros yet another chance to give manager Dusty Baker yet another chance at the one thing that’s eluded him in his long and mostly distinguished managing career—a lease to the Promised Land.

Baker took on the Astros after Astrogate cost them A.J. Hinch, whose failure to put the brakes on the Astro Intelligence Agency’s illegal, off-field-based, electronic sign-stealing operation could have broken both the game and the organisation in half when it was exposed after the Astros fell to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series.

He might be the sentimental favourite come Series time—individually. The Astros will be up against a Phillies team that electrified their city and maybe most of the country with their own pennant conquest at home Sunday afternoon. Baker may be America’s manager but the Phillies may be America’s team this time. And Bryce Harper just may be America’s man within America’s team, if that’s the case.

No Astro delivered quite the transcendent blow Sunday that Harper did in the bottom of the eighth. Judge’s record-breaking 62nd home run merely broke a hallowed AL and Yankee team record and guaranteed his coming free agency riches. Harper’s deficit-overthrowing two-run homer held up to mean the pennant, in a rainy game that looked as though the Phillies and the Padres did more mud wrestling than ball playing.

The pitchers couldn’t grip properly or resist their landing feet sliding more than single inches on the muddy mound. The hitters changed batting gloves as often as they could. Batting helmets shone with rain water on top. New York wasn’t exactly paradise but Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park was practically a swamp. And no fan dared leave until it was done.

Harper stunned the Padres first by taking a tumbling Robert Suarez changeup on which he might have swung otherwise, once upon a time. He anticipated Suarez bringing a fastball soon enough, hoping only to find an outfield gap into which to send one, enough to bring J.T. Realmuto home from first with a tying run.

He got and did better than he hoped. He got a cutter hovering over the outer half of the plate and swung. The ball traveled about three or four rows the other way into the left field seats. The city that once hosted a record label proudly calling its brand of soul music The Sound of Philadelphia now had a new sound: bedlam.

The Biblical admonition goes that the last shall be first. The Phillies entered the postseason aboard the new three wild card system with the weakest regular season record of any postseason entrant and the eleventh-best record in the Show.

They’d survived an early season hump prompting their front office to throw out the first manager of the year. They’d survived injuries, including the two-month loss of Harper who needed the rest of the regular season to get his groove back. Both the Phillies and the Padres hit a partial re-set button at mid-season and burrowed their ways to their wild cards.

The Padres slew the NL dragons out of New York and Los Angeles. The Phillies slew those out of St. Louis and Atlanta. Then the Phillies won the pennant by taking four of five from the Padres. They ground, pushed, thumped, slashed, and thundered their way to the Series.

They reminded you that, when the dragonslayers meet each other, one of them gets fried.

They’re going to go up against an Astro team that still isn’t America’s favourite team thanks to the continuing taint of Astrogate. Never mind that only three position players from those 2017-18 cheaters remain with the team. Never mind mind that one (Jose Altuve) actually rejected being part of it. I say again, sadly: the taint won’t dissipate until the last member of the Astrogate teams no longer wears their uniform.

The Phillies haven’t won a World Series ring since the final months of the second George W. Bush administration. The Astros still hunt their first un-stained World Series rings. If the Astros think the Phillies can be taken as readily as the Yankees, the Astros may be in for a Series that’ll only feel as long as the Yankee winter now begun.

A mudswinging victory

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches what proved his NLCS-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth. Wild? The crowd went nuclear.

Bruce McClure, the membership ambassador for the Society for American Baseball Research, tweeted: “Why in the world did they insist on playing the [National League Championship Series] game in the pouring rain?” I had an answer immediately.

“Because,” I replied, “they wanted to see Bryce Harper drop every jaw in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the bottom of the eighth?”

“You win, good sir,” Mr. McClure answered.

Well, I didn’t win on Sunday afternoon. The Phillies did. At this writing, it’s fair to say those $330 million dollars Phillies owner John Middleton agreed to pay Harper over thirteen years might have been bargain-basement rate. It’s also fair to say no timetable should be placed upon the finish of Philadelphia going berserk over this.

One and a half innings after the elements and the mound mud they formulated helped the Padres to an overthrow one-run lead, and with J.T. Realmuto on first after a leadoff single against Padres reliever Robert Suarez, Harper checked in with the elements receding just enough and hit the biggest home run of his major league life. It took a little hair-raising in the top of the ninth to make it stick, but stick it did, sending the Phillies to the World Series.

“I knew he’d come with his best pitch,” Harper told Fox Sports field reporter/Sports Illustrated columnist Tom Verducci at one end of the dugout minutes after he ran it out. “I took the best swing I could. I just want to win this game.”

He’d just have to wait until the Phillies slithered out of a final Padres push in the ninth, when reliever David Robertson lost back-to-back one-out walks and gave way to Ranger Suárez, customarily a starter but also a lefthanded pitcher with a lefthanded batter due up.

Then Trent Grisham—a breakout star when the Padres slew the Mets’ dragon in the wild card series but almost a non-topic in this National League Championship Series—elected to try dragging a bunt for a base hit on Suárez’s first pitch. Neither he nor the Padres bargained on Suárez himself springing from the mound like a cat overdosing on Red Bull. Suárez threw him out at first almost in a blink.

The next man up was Austin Nola, the Padres’ catcher who hogged the headlines over the Padres’ lone NLCS win for starting the scoring with a base hit off brother Aaron on the mound for the Phillies. The only thing that might have made it sweeter if Big Brother Nola could land a hit now would have been if Little Brother Aaron was on the mound again.

But Little Brother was in the Phillies dugout on the same pins and cushions (thank you, Mrs. Ace) as his teammates until Big Brother skied Suárez’s first pitch to shallow right field, where Nick Castellanos ambled in, held off second baseman Juan Segura ambling out, and snapped the ball into his glove with the pennant attached.

Let the second guessing begin, mostly because it’s going to begin with or without any hint from me. The biggest one is probably going to be, thinking of the righthanded Robert Suarez staying in to face Harper the portside pulveriser, “Why the hell didn’t Bob Melvin bring Josh Hader in with Harper checking in at the plate?”

Reaching for the best bull in your pen when it’s shy of the ninth inning and your “save” situation is five minutes ago with a hard-mudslidden one-run lead isn’t just sound strategy, it’s absolutely mandatory. That’s smart baseball. Especially when your best just so happens to match ideally to their best and their best is due up next. Wasn’t that why the Padres dealt for Hader at the deadline, banking on the self-resurrection he’d make after leaving Milwaukee.

Of course it was. But just maybe Melvin just saw his Phillies counterpart do likewise with his best bull and get third-degree burned through no fault of either his or his man’s own. Melvin wasn’t going to let that happen to him or to his team. Mother Nature was being defiant enough all day long. And Harper had faced Robert Suarez in the eighth in Game Two, their only previous known confrontation—whacking into a double play.

The Padres mud-wrestled their way back from a 2-1 deficit in the seventh—Rhys Hoskins’s two-run bomb in the bottom of the third threatened to hold up otherwise despite Juan Solo’s solo satellite in the top of the fourth—because Phillies manager Rob Thomson’s reach for Seranthony Domínguez backfired under Mother Nature’s pouring.

The mound was muddy. The infield dirt was muddy. Both starting pitchers, Zack Wheeler for the Phillies and Yu Darvish for the Padres, had visible trouble keeping their landing feet from sliding more than a bare inch on the mudded mound downslope. Domínguez in the heavier rain had visible trouble holding and throwing his usually precise fastballs.

With Wheeler pushed out at the inning’s opening by Jake Cronenworth’s leadoff single, Domínguez fell behind 3-1 before throwing Josh Bell a fastball meaty enough to bang into right for an RBI double—after wild-pitching Cronenworth to second to make it simpler. After Domínguez looked to be finding a workable rain handle with back-to-back strikeouts, he threw two wild pitches while working to Grisham, enabling pinch-runner Jose Azocar to take third and score the Padres’ third run.

Grisham flied out to right for the side. Melvin surely appreciated having the lead handed to the Padres for the first and only time in the game. But seeing Thomson’s best-bull-forward move get thrown in the mud that dramatically must have put one thought in the back of his mind: We are not going to let that happen to us in this dreck.

Darvish surrendered an eighth inning-opening  double to right to Bryson Stott, yielding to Robert Suarez. Suarez wrestled through the seventh unscathed. Hader was up and throwing in the Padres bullpen. But Realmuto began Suarez’s eighth-inning scathing by whacking an 0-2 pitch into left for a clean single. (As clean as the wet conditions allowed, of course.)

Still no sign of Hader. Suarez and Harper wrestled through two 1-2 foul balls to 2-2. The next pitch was a sinker hanging up in the outer middle region of the strike zone. Harper launched it parabolically, the opposite way, into the left field seats. Every occupant of Citizens Bank Park dared to believe it. The Phillies had just won the pennant. The top of the ninth would be a mere formality.

Not exactly, of course. It wasn’t easy for either team to get here in the first place, no matter how easy the Phillies made it look shoving the Cardinals and the Braves aside, no matter how easy the Padres made it look shoving the Mets and the Dodgers to one side.

Both teams had to hit the mid-season reset buttons. The Phillies had to get to the postseason in the first place almost despite losing Harper first to designated hitter-only duty after a shoulder injury and then for two months with a thumb fracture—on a pitch from the Padres’ Game Three starter Blake Snell, of all people.

It took Harper long enough to get anything resembling his groove back in the first place. The Phillies claimed the final National League wild card in the nick of time. Harper found his groove almost the moment the postseason began. Now he stands as the NLCS’s Most Valuable Player. The stupid money (Middleton’s term for his willingness to spend and invest in the team) looks absolutely Mensa now.

Harper’s hit five bombs all postseason long thus far and tied a franchise record for postseason for extra base hits. He’s hit a lot of indelible nukes in his career. Not even the ultimate grand slam he smashed against the Cubs a little over three years ago compares.

That one will become just a footnote to his career. Wherever the Phillies go from here, this one’s going to be cast in plutonium.

The phlinging, phlying, phlogging Phillies

Brandon Marsh

The Ides of Marsh—the Phillies’ center fielder launching the three-run homer that launched the Phillies toward burying the Braves and going to the NLCS Saturday afternoon.

“You’ve got to beat the champs to be the champs,” said Bryce Harper just minutes after the game ended. The Phillies aren’t exactly the champs just yet. But the way they dispatched the Braves once their National League division series shifted to Citizens Banks Park, it won’t be simple to bet against them now.

These are not the uncohesive, porous Phillies who were down 22-29 and threw out the first manager as June got underway. Since executing Joe Girardi and installing his bench coach Rob Thomson on the bridge, the Phillies were the third-winningest team in the National League, behind the Braves they just vanquished and the Mets who became 101 game-winning also-rans last weekend.

They ground their way to the postseason despite a key element or two missing significant injury time, a just-enough pitching reshuffle, and prognosticators who assumed the almighty Braves—who had to grind their own way back to snatch the National League East in the first place—would do to them what they just finished doing.

They flattened the Braves 8-3 Saturday afternoon. It’s rather amazing what a team who’d spent seventeen straight days for fourteen straight games on the road can do once they get to come home at last. By the time Phillies relief ace Seranthony Domínguez blew Travis d’Arnaud away with a wind-generating swinging strikeout to end the game, they’d outscored the Braves 17-4 in division series Games Three and Four.

The defending world champions who were second in the league in runs scored on the regular season couldn’t rent, buy, embezzle, or forge runs once they left their own playpen in this set. Their starting pitching, usually considered one of their deepest contingencies this year, had only Kyle Wright’s magnificent Game Two performance to show for it.

Once they got to playing Saturday afternoon, almost everything a Brave threw was found by a Phillie bat when it hurt the most, sometimes for measured-doses mischief and sometimes for long-distance landings. And, unless the Braves were hitting solo home runs, whatever they hit when not striking out to the tune of fifteen batters found a Phillie  glove.

This wasn’t exactly what the Braves planned to happen once they managed to overthrow the Mets and steal a division over half the world thought the Mets had in the safe deposit box.

“[T]he goal when we leave spring training is to win the division,” said manager Brian Snitker. “Until you win the division, you don’t have a chance to do anything special because you never know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what team’s going to get hot, what things have to go right for you to go deep into the postseason.”

The new postseason format may be the competition-diluting or compromising mishmash it happens to be, but one of the key reasons is that someone who doesn’t win the division—say, 25 or 6 someones in red or blue-on-red hats with big script Ps on the crowns—can do more than a few special things after they slip in through the second wild card door.

“They’re hitting on all cylinders at the right time,” said Snitker. “It’s a good club. They’ve got really good players, and they’re getting it going at the right time.”

Where to begin delineating the Braves’ engine seizure?

Maybe with poor Charlie Morton, who entered the game with a sub-one ERA in postseason elimination games but exited early with an elbow injury. But not before he was informed rudely that squirming out of one self-inflicted inning-opening jam is a reprieve, but squirming out of a second to follow immediately is not Phillies policy.

Bottom of the first—The wizened old righthander allowed the first two Phillies to reach base, Kyle Schwarber on an unintentional walk and Game Three hero Rhys Hoskins on a base hit, and escaped with his life and no score. Bottom of the second—Alec Bohm’s leadoff liner bounded off Morton’s forearm, then Morton struck Bryson Stott out before Jean Segura shot one past a diving Dansby Swanson at shortstop. First and third again.

No escape this time. Brandon Marsh, the Phillies center fielder whose long enough beard qualifies him well enough to audition for ZZ Top, saw a 2-2 curve ball arrive at the perfect level to send into the right field seats. One day after Hoskins hit a bat-spiking three-run homer to start the Phillie phun, Marsh equaled him for early drama if not for a celebratory gesture.

In the interim, Phillies starter Noah Syndergaard, last seen in postseason action throwing seven shutout innings at the Giants, in the 2016 NL wild card game the Mets ended up losing, didn’t let Orlando Arcia’s solo homer spoil his night. He sliced and diced the Braves  otherwise with a very un-Thor like array of breakers and three innings of shutout, three-strikeout ball.

As if to reward the remade/remodeled Syndergaard, who became a Phillie near the regular season trade deadline after a first half as a struggling free-agent Angel, his catcher J.T. Realmuto let Morton’s relief Collin McHugh—entering after Braves manager Brian Snitker saw Morton just uncomfortable enough warming back up to hook him—feel it where it really hurt.

Realmuto had a little help, admittedly, from Ronald Acuña, Jr. who either didn’t look in that big a hurry or misread the play. Acuña moved almost no muscle when Realmuto’s deep fly eluded Braves center fielder Michael Harris II, taking a carom off the lower portion of the State Farm sign on the center field fence and rolling almost halfway to the right field track.

It let Realmuto—maybe the fastest-running catcher in a game not known for swift-afoot backstops—run himself into an inside-the-park homer and a 4-1 Phillies lead. He also ran himself into becoming the eighteenth player and first catcher to deliver an inside-the-parker in postseason play.

He couldn’t contain himself when he dove home and sprang up whooping it up. “I’m not usually a guy that shows a lot of emotion,” he told reporters postgame. “When I slid into home, I couldn’t help myself. I was so excited. Excited for this city. Excited for this team. It was one of those moments I’ll definitely remember forever.” Him and everyone else including the concessionaires in the Bank.

Matt Olson made a small stand for the Braves in the top of the next inning, when he jerked the first pitch he saw from Phillies reliever Andrew Bellatti over the right field fence with one out, but Bellatti shook it off as if it were just a mildly annoying mosquito, striking both d’Arnaud and Austin Riley out swinging with remarkable aplomb.

The bullpens kept things quiet enough on the field, if not among the Bank crowd itching to see the Phillies take it the distance to the National League Championship Series, until the bottom of the sixth. With A.J Minter—whose fifth inning work was as lights-out as he’d been most of last year’s run to the Braves’ World Series title—taking on a second inning’s work. Uh-oh.

Segura rapped a single to center with one out and stole second almost too handily with Marsh at the plate. Minter caught Marsh looking at a third strike, but then his 2-2 changeup caught the Schwarbinator on the fingers around the bat and, after a review challenge, took his base.

Exit Minter, enter Raisel Igelsias. And enter the Phillies showing they could peck away at you with just as much ease and pleasure as they could detonate the nukes against you.

Hoskins fought one off to dump it into shallow right that fell for a base hit. When Acuña lost track of the ball after it bounded off his glove, Segura came home with the fifth Philadelphia run. Realmuto then bounced one slowly up the third base line, slow enough that Riley playing it in front of the base dirt on the grass couldn’t get a throw to first in time,   while Schwarber scored run number six and Hoskins held at second.

Then Bryce Harper—carrying a 1.674 series OPS to the plate with him—broke his bat while sneaking a base hit the other way left to send Hoskins home. Castellanos walked to load them up for Bohm but for the second time in the game the Phillies stranded the ducks on the pond. Not that it mattered. A 7-2 lead after a three-run pick-and-peck sixth was nothing to complain about.

D’Arnaud opened the Atlanta seventh with a first-pitch drive over the center field fence off Phillies reliever José Alvarado, starting a second inning’s work after a 32-minute rest during that bottom of the sixth. He then got two ground outs before yielding to Zack Eflin for the inning-ending swinging strikeout of William Contreras.

Eflin worked a one-two-three top of the eighth. Harper soon faced Kenley Jansen in an unusual-looking, from-far-enough-behind appearance, and had a that’s-what-you-think answer to d’Arnaud’s blast. He sliced Jansen’s fadeaway cutter the other way into the left field seats. Then it was time for Sir Anthony to ride in, dispatch the Braves by striking out the side, and let Philadelphia know the Phillies reached the next plateau.

“This is step two in what we’ve been through,” said Harper, whose regular season absence with a shoulder issue limiting him to the designated hitter role and then a thumb fracture could have deflated the Phillies but didn’t. “Step one being the wild card. This being step two and we’ve got two more (steps).”

Step three: either the Padres or the Dodgers in the NLCS. Step four: You have to ask? Taking things one step at a time works big for these Phillies hanging with the big boys. So far.