After a decadelong playoff disappearance, high hopes greeted by mediocre results and the sinking feeling they might be looking up at the class of their division for a while, the Philadelphia Phillies have returned to their once-expected place: The National League Championship Series.
With perhaps October’s most intimidating and raucous surroundings egging them on, the Phillies completed a four-game Division Series conquest of the Atlanta Braves with a 8-3 victory Saturday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, which once again is the City of Brotherly Love’s hottest autumn destination.
The Phillies, granted a playoff berth only because Major League Baseball opted to expand the field and add a third wild card this season, eliminated the defending World Series champion Braves, who won 101 games in the regular season to Philadelphia’s 87. But the Phillies are now 5-1 in these playoffs, eliminating the Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals, and head back on the road to start the NLCS.
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Game 1 will be at San Diego’s Petco Park or Dodger Stadium, depending on the outcome of that NLDS. Ace Zack Wheeler is aligned to start Philadelphia’s first NLCS game since 2010, when the San Francisco Giants beat them in Game 6, one mini-dynasty handing off to another.
This time, the Phillies took out the five-time NL East champion Braves, a result that will have instant and long-term ramifications. A look at three takeaways from the Game 4 clincher:
The stars finally shine
We’ve cited this statistic a lot, but now it truly resonates: Since 2019, the Phillies have spent $742.5 million on five players, a binge that began with three seasons of oh-so-close frustration only to finally yield results this season.
And Philly’s playoff run and dismantling of the Braves allowed all their stars to shine.
Bryce Harper started the binge, his 13-year, $330 million deal in 2019 reestablishing Philadelphia as a destination. His homer keyed a Game 2 defeat of St. Louis in the wild card round and he helped ice Saturday’s Game 4 with a nifty opposite-field single and an eighth-inning home run.
J.T. Realmuto continued it, his trade from Miami fulfilling Harper’s wish and his $115.5 million extension keeping him a Philly through this potentially golden era. In Game 4, he electrified Citizens Bank Park and made history with a stirring inside-the-park home run, the first in playoff history by a catcher.
Zack Wheeler was granted a five-year, $118 million deal before the 2020 season, and set the tone by silencing the Cardinals in the playoff opener. He pitched five shutout innings in NLDS Game 2 before Atlanta bested him.
Yet the Phillies could do no better than 82-80 until this winter, when owner John Middleton roared out of the 99-day lockout and guaranteed $79 million to Kyle Schwarber and $100 million to Nick Castellanos.
While Schwarber hit 46 home runs, both had their regular season struggles. But Castellanos poured a season’s worth of value into Game 1 at Atlanta, with three run scoring hits and a gorgeous defensive play. Schwarber has suffered through a 1-for-20 postseason so far, but his mere existence elicited an intentional walk in Game 3 on Friday, preceding Rhys Hoskins’ series-turning, bat-spiking three-run bomb.
“I think that’s always been the goal, to get to where we are right now, but even further than that,” Harper said. “This is step two in what we’ve been through. We’ve got two more.
“So the plan all along was to come here try to win. And to have an owner like John Middleton that wants to win as well.”
The lesson? Value eventually gets returned, even if you have to wait a minute for it.
Braves: Short-circuited dynasty?
There’s no denying the standard of excellent established by GM Alex Anthopoulos and manager Brian Snitker in Atlanta: They’ve won five straight division titles, a World Series and made consecutive NLCS appearances.
That things went sideways in this NLDS – starting with ace Max Fried’s illness-abetted short outing in Game 1 – won’t change that.
The $662 million in contract extensions granted to Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider is almost enough to ensure long-term greatness. Yet the Braves will face immediate questions, most notably whether to enter the sweepstakes for shortstop Dansby Swanson, who will easily crack the nine-figure mark in free agency this winter.
If the negotiations for former franchise pillar Freddie Freeman are any indication, Atlanta will be looking for a shortstop.
“I love that guy, just what he brings, consistency,” Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said of Swanson after Game 4. “I’ve never seen a player that wants to win more than him. And like I say, hopefully I get to reconvene with him. We’ll see.
Star closer Kenley Jansen will also be a free agent, and it will be interesting to see how high corporate owner Liberty Media is willing to extend what will already be a club-record payroll.
Yet it’s undeniable a huge opportunity – 101 wins, a No. 2 playoff seed, abundant confidence – passed them by this week.
How high can these Phillies fly?
They’ll definitely be tested in a best-of-seven series, lessening the impact of aces Wheeler and Aaron Nola and forcing arms like Ranger Suarez and Bailey Falter to the forefront.
Yet their lineup is gelling as it hasn’t all year. An ad hoc bullpen has beautifully established both roles and flexibility, with Zach Eflin, Jose Alvarado and Seranthony Dominguez primed and executing at a high level.
The Dodgers and Padres will pose a cross-country test. The Astros would be a daunting World Series foe. But the club’s first World Series championship since 2008 is very much within reach.
“It’s a great club,” says manager Rob Thomson, who took over for the fired Joe Girardi when the Phillies were 22-29 and eventually earned the permanent job. “I told them they’re tough, they’re resilient, they’re really talented and really unselfish.”
And now, eightwins away from winning it all.