And suddenly, it was over. There were no outs left to play, no more innings left to pray on, no more “Hail Mary’s” to whisper upon gritted teeth – just a weakly hit, Nick Castellanos’ pop fly into foul territory and with that, the Philadelphia Phillies’ dreams of a world championship vanished into the air-conditioned night of Minute Maid Park. The other shoe had finally fallen.
1,500 miles away, the lights in South Philadelphia finally started to dim. The streets fell silent once again, back to homeostasis, to the quiet tedium of everyday life. The final scatterings of civic pride slipped silently away, shadows under the street lights. A worn red-cap pulled low over teary mascara, a long face in a Cole Hamels jersey. The night moved on without a care, the emotional fallout of a million effervescent fans careening unheard into the black void. It wasn’t a feeling they’d soon forget.
And how could they? For as painful a loss as it was, the sting of defeat did more than just rub salt into the wounds of Phillies fans. It made them remember – the improbable, magical, Cinderella run of the little team that could. It made them remember what it was like to be a city of one, once again, to feel the tremors of a shaking Citizens Bank Park throughout South Philadelphia once again. To feel alight with the flame of pride, in this city, in this team, in this fanbase. Over just 29 short days, the Phillies accomplished more than what they had in over a decade – they reminded the city of how much a part of Philadelphia they really are.
The Phillies also reminded the entirety of Major League Baseball of how good they really could be. While the sport-media pundits can all give their takes on how improbable a postseason run it was for the Phillies, who snuck in as the last-ranked seed in the National League with an 87-75 regular season record, those who pay close attention to the team know that it wasn’t a fluke. In actuality, up until Game 4 of the World Series, the Phillies postseason run had been relatively easy. Some would even characterize it as a cakewalk.
Prior to the World Series, the Phillies lost only two games across three series – a paltry 0-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 2 of the NLDS and a scrappy 5-8 Game 2 loss to the San Diego Padres in Game 2 of the NLCS. In the Wild-Card, Divisional, and Championship series, the Phillies didn’t just beat, but dominated high-seeded and higher-regarded opponents. The Cardinals shut-down closer? Torn to shreds in a Game 1 9th inning rally. The Atlanta Braves starting rotation? Blown out upon returning to a raucous Philadelphia crowd, celebrating their first home playoff series since 2011. And the San Diego Padres indomitable bullpen? Upset in a blowout 10-6 Game 4 victory and sent home by a career-defining Bryce Harper two-run home run in the eighth inning of a decisive Game 5.
To put it simply, the competition wasn’t up to the task. NLCS MVP Bryce Harper went on an offensive tear only capable of the best player in baseball, the incredibly deep lineup gelled together for the first time all season, starting pitchers Zach Wheeler and Aaron Nola – hell, throw in Ranger Suarez – made for the best 3-punch combo in the game, and a once shaky bullpen became the strength of the hottest team in the National League.
While the elements of luck, chance, unseen forces of team chemistry and the randomness of playoff baseball played a part in the Phillies’ unforeseen success, much of it can be attained to a more rational explanation. (I’d include the wondrous insanity of Citizens Bank Park, but every city has a chance to generate home field advantage). The fact is that the Phillies are just really, really good. They are far better than their 87 wins – courtesy of a poor start under former manager Joe Girardi – just as they are far better than their 75 losses – courtesy of playing in the best division in baseball. They are not now merely equal to their 101-win division rivals, the Mets and the Braves, but are better, with a deeper, more powerful lineup, and adequate starting pitching. The Phillies, who were predicted by many to miss the playoffs for the 11th straight year in 2022, are not just amongst the National League elite, the blue-chip Dodgers, the formidable Padres, they are the National League’s elite. Although the playoffs are but a small blip on the radar when compared to the 162-game regular season, they aren’t won or lost by a fluke run or a hot team. The Phillies won three separate series – a best of 3, best of 5, and best of 7 – plenty of time for each of their opponents to gather themselves and play their best baseball. No, by the time the Phillies reached the World Series, one thing was clearly apparent: that the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies were the best two teams in baseball.
So, what happened? Why couldn’t the indomitable Phillies chop down one more giant Oak tree? Why couldn’t David strike down Goliath once again? Did their luck finally run out or was it something else that finally led to the team’s demise?
Perhaps it was a combination of things. The first and most significant, being that the Astros were simply the best team they’d faced all year. They were a complete opponent, with a deep lineup highlighted by dangerous power hitters batting 1st-5th in the order. They were a strong defensive team, with a lethal infield and unlike the Phillies, three capable outfielders. They were experienced, not only had their last loss prior to the World Series come from the Phillies on October 3rd, but in 2022 they had been to four of the last six World Series and had reached the ALCS in all six of their last seasons. Competing for a world championship was nothing new for them.
Most of all, however, the Astros had an elite pitching staff, one that seemed to only deepen as the series progressed and was backed by a shut-down bullpen. The strength of the Astros pitching, combined with it being completely foreign to the Phillies’ offense, turned out to be the kryptonite to this team’s run. It wasn’t that the Astros were unbeatable, not by a long shot. Their offense, while formidable, wasn’t overpowering – they never scored more than 5 runs in a single game and only scored in consecutive innings once, in their Game 1 loss. Although the Astros won the final three games to clinch the series, all of their victories were a result of a single decisive inning in an evenly-matched game: a 5-run 5th inning in Game 4, a go-ahead run in the 8th of Game 5, and 4 runs in the 6th of Game 7.
No, the Phillies didn’t win the World Series not because of Rob Thompson’s costly decision to replace Zach Wheeler with Jose Alvarado in bottom of the 6th in Game 7, nor did it come from Wheeler and Nola’s less than desirable World Series outings, nor was it the result of a smattering of the Phillies’ trademark defensive miscues. The Phillies didn’t win the World Series because they couldn’t hit. After winning Game 1 6-5 off a 10th inning home run from J.T. Realmuto – hitting 4-10 with runners in scoring position (RISP) – and tying the World Series record of 5 home runs in a 7-0 Game 3 rout, the Phillies continued to make history, just in all of the wrong ways. First came the combined no-hitter from the Astros in Game 4, followed by leaving 12 runners on base in Game 5 and hitting just 1-7 with RISP, and managing to score just 1 run on a paltry 3 hits in Game 7. From Game 2, onwards the Phillies hit just 1-20 with RISP. From the 6th inning of Game 3 to the end of the World Series, the Phillies went just 9-98, hitting .092. Their .163 team batting average is a record for a World Series of at least six games and their 71 total strike outs is a record for a World Series of any length.
The Phillies’ sudden inability to generate offense was too stark to suggest that either their luck just finally ran out or the Astros were simply too dominant – their untimely collapse wasn’t the result of one or the other, but both. Yes, the Phillies’ offensive chemistry, which seemed alive throughout the first three games of the Series, finally lost its spark. And yes, the Astros pitching staff was better than what they’d seen all postseason – but still, the Phillies had shown an ability to hit them. They were capable of winning this World Series.
But they didn’t. Their greatest weakness, an inability to hit with RISP, which had hamstrung them throughout the regular season, finally returned. They weren’t seeing the ball – hitters took poor approaches at the plate and clutch hits became as rare as uncut gems.
Even still, the Phillies can leave this season with their heads held high. In a season in which they weren’t expected to even reach postseason, they made it to the World Series and handed the best team in baseball their only two losses of the postseason. For although defeat doesn’t bring championship rings, it does bear unseen gifts. It gives the organization the confidence of knowing that their team is one of the best in the sport. It gives the Phillies a clear path forward into the offseason and a sense of what they need to do to push this team from one capable of winning the World Series to one that wins the World Series. In 2022, the Phillies had the 4th highest payroll in baseball. In 2023, look for them to stay at the top of that list, even with an estimated $75 million coming off their payroll in free-agency.
Bolstering the starting rotation will likely be a major focus. Today Zach Eflin declined his $15 million mutual option and entered free-agency. Noah Syndergaard and Kyle Gibson both became free agents, along with bullpen arms David Robertson, Brad Hand, and Corey Knebel. Second-baseman Jean Segura is likely to hit free-agency as well. In the wake of the Phillies run, President of Baseball Operations will be big game hunting all winter long – and will be looking to woo some of free-agency’s top starting pitchers and middle infielders with John Middleton’s checkbook in his back pocket.
Rhys Hoskins enters his final year of salary arbitration before reaching free-agency. If the Phillies are shrewd, they’ll get what they can for him in a deal prior to the start of the 2023 season.
Most importantly, however, the Phillies can with them their memories of this magical run – not just the elation of winning in front of a sold-out stadium, but the pain of watching the Astros storm the field as World Series Champions, motivating them to reach that pedestal once again.
Featured Image: AP Photo / David J. Phillip