Phillies, Harper Reign in the Rain, Clinch NLCS and World Series Trip

Bryce Harper
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — This was what the Phillies had in mind all along: Sweeping three home games to clinch the NLCS, the decisive game featuring a dominant Zack Wheeler performance, a Rhys Hoskins home run, and the other runs scored by the stars the Phillies brought into supplement him — Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, and J.T. Realmuto. And atop it all, Harper, battling to break through against an unhittable reliever, at long last flicking a 98.9-mph slider off the outside of the plate and into the seats.

“I told [hitting coach Kevin] Long before I walked up the steps,” Harper recounted at his postgame press conference. “I said, ‘Let’s give them something to remember.'”

The ensuing at-bat was the most memorable of Harper’s already storied career, turning a 3–2 deficit into a 4–3 pennant-clinching win. An excitable but anxious crowd brought from despair to ecstasy, a dugout full of postseason novices leaping over each other and onto the field to celebrate, and the $330 million man, the one-time child prodigy now a week on the gray side of 30, cantering around the bases.

“J.T. set the tone and put pressure on them right away with a base hit. Then it’s the MVP, right? It’s the showman,” Hoskins said. “This guy finds ways in big situations every single time. I don’t even know how many times he did it this series.”

As much as Harper joined this team with precisely this kind of moment in mind, elements of this victory were not planned. Several years of false starts after the shift out of rebuild mode in the late 2010s, for example. Or a midseason managerial change. Or a sudden rainstorm that almost derailed the whole enterprise and brought the series back to San Diego. No matter. Within minutes of Harper’s home run, Calum Scott and Tiësto’s cover of “Dancing On My Own” was piping through the Citizens Bank Park loudspeakers, and lampposts were already being climbed at Broad and Locust.

Sunday’s game concluded a captivating NLCS, in which each of the five games was thrilling and strange in its own distinct way. And while this is not the first time Harper has been the hero — he’s now the first player to homer in three series-clinching wins in one postseason — he left it to the last moment.

Though the Phillies didn’t put the Padres away until the very last pitch of the day, they had the initiative most of the way.

The two starters each allowed a single home run — Yu Darvish a two-run shot to Hoskins in the bottom of the third, Wheeler a Juan Soto bomb into the home bullpen half an inning later — but otherwise handed the damp, rainy conditions well. Wheeler, who’s carried the Phillies since his arrival as a free agent three seasons ago, pitched as well as he ever has in the biggest game of his career. He retired the first 10 batters he faced, maxing out at 99.5 mph with his fastball and throwing 60 of 87 pitches for strikes. The Padres fought him as hard as they could, fouling off 18 pitches, including 11 in the first inning alone, but apart from Soto, only two batters reached in the first six innings.

Darvish wasn’t quite as sharp, but he did enough to keep the Padres in the game, which is all that mattered in the end. He walked three and allowed some hard contact, but he also induced two double plays the first time through the order, which kept the Phillies from breaking the game open early. Which meant that when the seventh inning rolled around, the Friars were in a position to capitalize on the biggest break they got all weekend.

So let’s talk about the seventh inning.

In the top of that inning, the steady but mild rain that had been falling for most of the afternoon turned into something more substantial, but evidently not enough for the umpires to call for the tarp. Around the same time, Jake Cronenworth hit a characteristic line drive single through the right side, ending Wheeler’s day and causing Rob Thomson to call for Seranthony Domínguez once more. The conditions had been cold and wet all day, and Darvish’s plant foot could be seen sliding around the mound in the middle innings, but the rain was at its worst around this point.

Up until Sunday’s rain-soaked outing, Domínguez had faced 22 batters in this postseason. He’d struck out 13, walked none, and allowed only two singles and no runs. With Cronenworth on first and nobody out, Domínguez threw a wild pitch, ran a three-ball count on Josh Bell, and surrendered a game-tying double. Bob Melvin, sensing an opportunity to press his advantage, brought in the speedy José Azocar to run for the offensive guard-sized Bell. Domínguez got two strikeouts and a fly out despite the rain, but in between he threw two more wild pitches, each of which advanced Azocar a base, the last of them sending him home as the go-ahead run with two outs.

The rain came and went for the rest of the evening, and even as the grounds crew dumped bag after bag of Diamond Dry between innings, it seemed like the Phillies might get the chance to strike back before conditions cleared. When Bryson Stott led off the bottom of the seventh with a double that chased Darvish, things were headed in that direction. But the rain eased for a moment, and Robert Suarez escaped without surrendering the lead. In the top of the eighth, as the rain picked up once more, a waterlogged José Alvarado just barely held on.

Asked about the conditions in his postgame press conference, Melvin said, “I’ve played in worse. But I think it was playable. The thing about it is both teams have to play in it.”

Out came Suarez for a second inning, as Melvin saved Josh Hader for a save opportunity that never came. An 0–2 changeup to Realmuto caught a little too much of the plate and got lined to left for a single. Up came Harper, who came to the plate as determined to hit the ball a mile as any batter who ever lived, taking a cartoonish cut through the first pitch of the at-bat. In between the first-pitch foul tip and the home run, Harper worked Suarez the way Padres hitters had worked Wheeler, spoiling three fastballs, all in excess of 98 mph over the outer half of the plate.

Finally, he connected with a nasty sinker and put it in the wind. Most of the afternoon, the wind had been coming in from center field, but late in the game it shifted just slightly right to left from the batter’s vantage point — just enough to allow Harper’s ball to carry over the wall.

And because nothing’s been straightforward this postseason, the Phillies nearly gave the game back in the top of the ninth. With Domínguez and Alvarado spent, Thomson called for David Robertson, who was about 19 hours removed from getting five outs to help wrap up Game 4. Like the previous two relievers, he struggled to locate, putting two men on and retiring just one. So Thomson, nearly out of options, called on no. 3 starter Ranger Suárez for an emergency save. The lefty, who saved four games in 2021, needed just two pitches to get the final two outs.

For the past five years, the Phillies have poured immense resources into this club in an attempt to get to this point. Signing not just Harper, Wheeler, Schwarber, and Nick Castellanos, but also spending huge amounts of young talent to bring in Realmuto, Jean Segura, and Brandon Marsh in trades. Committing $115.5 million to re-sign Realmuto. Developing Hoskins, Suárez, and Domínguez into impact players from relative obscurity, and spending first-round picks on Stott and Alec Bohm. Three managers, two front office regimes. And it never really clicked until the past few weeks.

“You get in the playoffs, anything can happen,” Thomson said after the game. “You get on a roll and you have a little bit of good fortune and some lucky bounces, things just kind of keep going and snowballing in your favor. I really thought that coming down the stretch, if we could get in… everybody would relax because I think the biggest pressure on these guys was just getting in.”

And so it’s gone. As other teams have watched their stars go cold, their pitchers lose the strike zone, their bounces go the other way, the Phillies have yet to put a foot wrong, have yet to find a bump in the road they could not absorb.

“That’s the beautiful thing about this sport, there’s so many things that have to go right,” Hoskins said. “There’s so many decisions to be made along the way. There’s so many people you have to believe in along the way. And I think this group’s done a pretty good job of that, and that’s allowed us to be ready for that type of moment when it comes.”

The World Series will present a different challenge, as the likely AL champion Astros have spent the past two rounds turning their opposition into matchsticks. But to the Phillies, they’re just another obstacle.

“This is great, to be able to be the last National League team standing right now,” Harper said. “The Philadelphia Phillies, we’re here. We’re ready to go in that next round. We’ve got four more. We’re going to enjoy this as a team, as a group, but we’ve got four more.”

You’ll forgive him for liking his chances against such a formidable opponent. At the moment, it seems like nothing can go wrong.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

23 Comments
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David Kleinmember
1 month ago

I like the fact that the fangraphs app now has the articles but I wish you could also comment on the articles on the app too. Now on to the game Melvin not using Hader to face Harper was absolute insanity and either pinch hit for Grisham or tell him to swing away I know Melvin said Grisham did it on his own but geez what a weird decision by Grisham. I just read that in last eight years four nl east teams have made it to the World Series while no other division had more than two. I am a bitter Mets fan, so I’m not happy but I’ve always been a Wheeler fan so I’m happy for him and Bryce is an incredible ball player, he’s always been comped to Trout, and he’s no Trout but he’s had a wonderful career and was worth all the hype he got. I just hope the Phillies season ends at the Astros hands and the Yankees don’t pull off a miracle and we get a Yankee/Phillies series again- what a nightmare that would be.

Last edited 1 month ago by David Klein
maguro
1 month ago
Reply to  David Klein

The idea that Grisham would bunt probably did not even enter Melvin’s mind. As for pinch hitting, it’s questionable whether using Alfaro or Campusano would have improved their odds. The issue is more with roster construction, carrying two backup catchers didn’t work out so well.

MikeSmember
1 month ago
Reply to  maguro

That’s the thing that I really never got. Usually when you carry three catchers it is because at least two of them are good hitters, but bad defensively. Nola had his worst year with the bat, Alfaro has always been below average, and Campusano is young, but hadn’t really shown anything compelling yet to put him on a playoff roster. They are all probably adequate offensively as catchers go, but I don’t know why you need three of those guys.

Barney Coolio
1 month ago
Reply to  maguro

Neither Campusano nor Alfaro made a single appearance in any postseason game. I wonder if they were effectively useless after so much time off. To bring one of them in to pinch hit in such a high leverage moment seems unlikely to succeed.

MikeSmember
1 month ago
Reply to  Barney Coolio

I’m not saying they should have been used to pinch hit, I’m saying the roster spots should have been used better and the fact that the Padres gave 2 spots to guys who never played backs me up.

tung_twista
1 month ago
Reply to  maguro

The problem is that the Padres simply did not have any decent bench options to fill out the roster.
Easy to say “don’t carry two backup catchers if you are not going to use them.”
Harder to say “then which Padre should be in the roster?”
Their best hitter left off the NLCS roster was probably Brandon Dixon (who was in NLWC roster), a 30 year old with career wRC+ 74 and fwar -0.2 in 572 PAs.
Ultimately, this is pretty marginal as the 25th/26th player is unlikely to make a difference in the postseason for most teams anyways.

Last edited 1 month ago by tung_twista
Michael Noldmember
1 month ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Yeah, they didn’t leave any appealing position player behind in favor of Alfaro and Campusano. No lumbering slugger who might work as a PH, no speed demon, no bat control specialist. The real question with the catchers is whether giving Nola a day off (say Game 3) would have quickened his bat for Games 4 and 5.

With hindsight, you’d replace Clevinger and Manae with Crismatt and…Stammen, I guess. Whether that would have led to a better result in a bullpen Game 4, who knows.