Yesterday afternoon, 45,538 fans packed into Citizens Bank Park anxiously anticipating the return of playoff baseball in South Philadelphia. It had been over a decade since the Phillies legendary PA announcer Dan Baker read the starting lineups before a postseason game. Over those long years, Baker announced lineup after lineup of no-name players––guys who came to Philly to resurrect what little of a career they had left. But just before the first pitch yesterday, Baker read a lineup to a scene of red rally towels––the order that had finally brought meaningful October baseball back to Philadelphia.
The starting pitchers, Aaron Nola and Spencer Strider, dueled for the first two-and-a-half innings, with the Braves righty looking particularly unhittable. But Strider, who last pitched on September 18 due to a left oblique strain, saw his velocity drop in the third inning. Averaging 98.4 mph on his fastball through the first two innings, it dropped to just 96.4 mph in the third. Then, after a four pitch walk to Brandon Marsh, an RBI double from Bryson Stott, and an intentional walk distributed to Kyle Schwarber, Strider grooved a first pitch 93.8 mph fastball to Rhys Hoskins. It was the most electric postseason moment at Citizens Bank Park since Roy Halladay’s no-hitter.
With the Phils up 4-0 and JT Realmuto following the blast with a single, Strider was out of the game. In came Dylan Lee for the Braves, who pitched to a 2.13 ERA with 59 strikeouts in 50.2 innings during the regular season. Bryce Harper didn’t care. He crushed a first-pitch fastball over the wall in right to make it 6-0. That was all Aaron Nola needed as he cruised through 6+ innings while allowing one unearned run and striking out six. The latter innings would provide some frustrating defense, but nothing a few more insurance runs couldn’t fix. The Phillies would go on to win 9-1 and take a 2-1 NLDS lead over the Braves. If the Phillies win today, they will punch their ticket to the NLCS––the final stop before the World Series.
Read that line again. Your Philadelphia Phillies are on the brink of doing something that no one would have dreamed of when the club was 22-29 in the first week of June and had just fired their manager. Yet, here we are. Red October. A playoff series win. A trip to the NLCS on the line. When was the last time you were this excited about a Phillies team?
This afternoon, the Phillies will send Noah Syndergaard (10-10, 3.94 ERA) to the hill in hopes of closing out the series. Since being acquired at this year’s trade deadline, Syndergaard has pitched to a 4.12 ERA in 54.2 innings with a 99 ERA+ (major league average is 100). By no means is Syndergaard the same Thor he was when he pitched for the New York Mets, but he has significant big game experience. During the Mets’ World Series run in 2015, Syndergaard threw six innings and allowed three runs in Game 3 as a 22-year-old rookie. Though he is not fazed by the moment, he’s unlikely to pitch deep into the game. It’s unclear how Phillies manager Rob Thomson plans to utilize the bullpen, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see some combination of Syndergaard, Bailey Falter, and Zach Eflin in the early innings before handing it off to the big arms in the back of the pen. If one thing’s for certain, Thomson will manage to finish the series at home in four games rather than banking on a fifth game Sunday in Atlanta.
The Braves will counter with former Phillie Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.34 ERA) in a win or go home scenario. Like Syndergaard, Morton has big game experience. The 38-year-old veteran has pitched in three separate World Series––the first being with the Houston Astros where he got the final out to secure the Astros’ infamous 2017 championship against the Dodgers. Though he’s in the twilight of his career, Morton still has quality stuff and won’t be an easy battle for the Fightin’s lineup. Like the Phillies, the Braves bullpen is well rested as manager Brian Snitker was able to keep his best arms from pitching in yesterday’s rout.
Nevertheless, today is a day we’ve been waiting 11 long years for. Postseason baseball is back in South Philly and the Phillies are playing with a confidence and energy that is reminiscent of the run from 2007-2011. They have the division rival and defending champion Braves on the brink of elimination, and have home field advantage in a potentially series-clinching Game 4. The Bank was back in yesterday’s win. The Phillies are back. Turn up the music. “Dancing On My Own” is queued up.
Photo: Rob Tringali/MLB Photos