The Shoe Is on the Other Foot, and the Phillies Are One Game From the NLDS

© Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Playoff baseball is a game of rapid reversals and slow-motion disasters. When heartbreak comes, it will either slap you in the face or gradually immure you in slime.

We saw both at Busch Stadium on Friday afternoon, as the Cardinals struck a lightning blow against the Phillies, then — just two outs from a commanding series lead — turned around to find out that the world was ending at a walking pace. A 2-0 ninth-inning lead turned into a 6-3 loss over the course of one bizarre half-inning. The Phillies are now, improbably, merely one win from advancing to the NLDS. Behold the fallout, a win probability chart that looks like a slide whistle sounds:

Until the stretch, the game unfolded with the anxiety-inducing caginess of scoreless playoff baseball. While 750 miles northeast, a man named Big Dumper was dumpering dingers into a sea of hostile fans, the Cardinals and Phillies probed and prodded but could not land a blow. For six and a half innings, they neither scored nor came particularly close to doing so.

Then things got weird.

When rookie outfielder Juan Yepez pinch hit in the bottom of the seventh, the two teams had combined for four walks, a hit batter, and four hits to that point. Only one of those, Alec Bohm’s leadoff double in the fifth, went for extra bases. The Phillies made three straight outs, accounting for three of the seven plate appearances in the first eight innings that took place with a runner in scoring position. Bryson Stott hit a sharp grounder right at a drawn-in Brendan Donovan, but that’s as close as they came.

An inning later, the Cardinals came as close as they would ever get to scoring off Zack Wheeler, but with two on and nobody out in the bottom of the sixth, Albert Pujols grounded into a double play, running so slowly that Jean Segura had time to dodge Lars Nootbaar’s takeout slide, double-clutch, and still throw Pujols out by several steps.

The scoring drought had many causes: nerves, home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn’s immersive strike zone, Pujols’ concrete legs. But mostly, it was good pitching by starters Wheeler and José Quintana. Not the tour de force we saw in Cleveland earlier in the day, but just good enough to keep hitters off-balance. Wheeler and Quintana only combined for seven strikeouts, but allowed just eight batted balls with an xBA of .300 or greater between them. A few of those, namely Pujols’ drive in the first and Nolan Arenado’s in the fourth, looked dangerous off the bat but died at or near the warning track. Even hard contact wasn’t being rewarded.

The first pitch Yepez saw might have been the first real mistake of the game. José Alvarado, who’d allowed one run since July, grooved a first-pitch cutter to Yepez, who duly nine-ironed it around the left field foul pole:

Yepez’s unlikely heroism seemed the logical continuation of the Cardinals’ traditional good fortune in the postseason — and the sequel to the Phillies’ most recent playoff defeat, the death-by-Chris Carpenter-and-Rally Squirrel in 2011. Manager Oliver Marmol brought in Ryan Helsley, his superstar closer, for a five-out save, and as the top of the ninth began, the ESPN broadcast flashed a chyron noting that the Cardinals were 93-0 in postseason games in which they led by multiple runs after eight innings.

Helsley, one of the best relievers in baseball this year, out-dueled Rhys Hoskins to start the inning. Then J.T. Realmuto, the most reliable of the Phillies’ veteran hitters this season, knocked a slider to center field. Three outs Helsley could get, but five was too much to ask.

On paper, Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos are two of the Phillies’ most dangerous hitters. But both have been banged up all year, and neither has looked fully fit at the plate down the stretch. Surely Helsley could bait one or both of them into trying to do too much with a slider off the plate. Harper, to his credit, took what Helsley gave him: A six-pitch walk. Castellanos walked on five pitches; only one of the four balls he took was particularly close.

By this point, Helsley was up to 30 pitches, only the fifth time this year he’d thrown that many in an outing. And Bohm, who’d looked more comfortable than any of his teammates at the plate, was now up with the tying run in scoring position. Helsley’s third pitch hit him in the front shoulder to force in the Phillies’ first playoff run in 11 years. Bohm hopped right back up clapping, looking happier than anyone’s ever been after wearing a 101 mph fastball.

Helsley’s status heading into this series was questionable, after he’d suffered a minor injury to the middle finger on his throwing hand on Tuesday. After he hit Bohm, however, the situation was no longer tenable. Marmol yanked him for rookie Andre Pallante, and Helsley is now headed for an MRI to investigate the severity of the injury.

Pallante got what Cardinals pitchers had gotten all game: weak contact. Only now, easy outs were finding holes. Segura rolled what could’ve been a game-ending double play to the same spot Stott had grounded out to in the fifth, but it somehow squeaked under Tommy Edman for the game-winning single:

From there, the Phillies kept piling on. Edmundo Sosa, running for Bohm, beat out a great throw from Paul Goldschmidt to make it 4-2. Then Brandon Marsh topped a grounder to Arenado, who Roger Dorn’d it into another run. Innings like this are why people believe in momentum.

By the time the dust settled, the Phillies had scored six runs — the most in postseason history by a team that entered the ninth inning scoreless — without ever hitting the ball hard. They just waited out one of the best relievers in baseball as he gradually lost his ability to throw strikes, then poked one grounder after another into the teeth of one of the best defenses in the game and watched those balls continue into the outfield. Midway through the inning, Cardinals fans were rushing to the exits, and for good reason: When that much goes wrong, there’s just no point in sticking around to wallow in the aftermath.

One understands why Marmol went to Helsley for a five-out save: A 1-0 lead, with home-field advantage, after surviving what’s likely to be the best performance this series by a Phillies starter, well, it would’ve been a coup. The Cardinals would’ve been as good as through. It was a win valuable enough to be worth chasing.

That point is particularly clear now that he and the Cardinals are living with the fallout from their ninth-inning meltdown. Their closer has probably thrown his last pitch this series, and tomorrow’s pitching matchup — Aaron Nola vs. Miles Mikolas — favors their opponent. In eight and a half of nine innings, the Cardinals either held serve or commanded the game. But because the other half-inning was an interminable disaster on the order of an overcommitted groomsman bombing a wedding toast, they’re a game from elimination. Postseason magic is as capricious as it is powerful.

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,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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4 months ago

My name is the Philadelphia Phillies. You killed Ryan Howard. Prepare to die.

4 months ago
Reply to  JPinPhilly

Just rewatched that movie. As you wish.