Going to the End of the Line with the Phillies
To be a baseball fan — to be a Phillies fan — is to submit yourself willingly to a tortured relationship.
During the course of the journey, there will be periods of ecstasy. In 2022, we have experienced more than our share, especially after the Phillies fired Joe Girardi in early June and promptly turned their season around. One of my favorites was Bryce Harper’s grand slam in the 8th inning in a game against the Angels. The Phillies would sweep that series and begin a torrid 19-8 stretch that put them back over the .500 mark and firmly in contention for one of the National League wild card berths.
Everyone will remember Kyle Schwarber’s insane June stretch in which he found his power and belted 12 home runs, but the moment I mentally bookmarked as a true turning point occurred on a nondescript getaway day. It was the ninth inning of a 1-0 game against the pesky Marlins, a divisional rival the Phillies just could not seem to beat with any regularity. The winner of the game would take the series, but the Phils could not generate any offense. Down to their last out, backup catcher Garrett Stubbs walked to the plate facing a tough lefty. After working a 2-2 count, Stubbs crushed a flat slider left over the plate and delivered a walk-off victory.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) June 15, 2022
Finally, it was the Phillies beating the Marlins. Finally, it was the opponent’s bullpen struggling to record those crucial final outs. Finally, it was the Phillies’ bench players coming through in the clutch.
This being baseball, there were also moments of pure agony. The Mets were a source of much of the misery. I remember a particularly grueling 10-9 loss in August in a game that stretched over five hours due to a rain delay. I decided to drive home from the shore when the delay began, and I listened in the car while Connor Brogdon coughed up a 3-run lead in the seventh inning. Jean Segura would hit a pinch-hit home run in the 8th to restore order, but the Mets would strike again in the top of the 9th with a two-run bomb, compliments of Mark Canha, that ultimately won them the game.
Mark Canha off David Robertson.
— Robert Flores (@RoFlo) August 21, 2022
For the diehard fan, the peaks and valleys are part of the climb, and they give you a better appreciation for the rare moments when the team has the summit in sight. Having watched the Phillies since April, I can honestly say there was never a time during the regular season when I deluded myself into thinking this assemblage of players had what it took to make a run to the World Series. There simply wasn’t enough depth in the starting rotation. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola were stalwarts, but the team wasn’t winning enough of their starts. Zach Eflin was a frequent injury risk, while Ranger Suarez and Kyle Gibson both struggled with consistency at times. And what were the defined roles in the bullpen? On whom could the manager rely to get outs not just in the ninth inning, but in high-leverage situations in the 7th and 8th frames?
How far could the team go with a .200 hitter fronting the lineup, one of the streakiest players alive behind him, a power-hitting catcher who looked like he lost a step in the first months of the season, and a star player with an elbow injury that relegated him to a full-time role as a DH? How would the team defend with question marks patrolling the corner infield and outfield positions?
The answers would arrive as the season progressed. While the Phillies were not capable of overcoming every one of their weaknesses, they have shown a collective persistence that has powered them to within two wins of the World Series trophy. They overcame critical errors in the field and stretches of poor play from their star players. They overcame an extended IL stint for Harper when a wayward Blake Snell fastball broke his hand. They battled through the struggles of relievers. Corey Knebel lost the closer’s role before landing on the injured list for the rest of the season. José Alvarado was disastrous in the early going, possessed of electric stuff but unable to command it.
When some players fell down, their teammates picked them up. Seranthony Domínguez, continuing his return from an injury that robbed him of multiple seasons, was a revelation. Connor Brogdon, who was up and down for most of the year, has tapped into the potency of his fastball-changeup combination at just the right time. Rookie Bryson Stott took over the everyday duties at shortstop after the team released veteran Didi Gregorius.
Meanwhile, many of those scuffling have turned their seasons around. J.T. Realmuto snapped out of his funk right around the time of Harper’s injury, providing a boost to a lineup that was in serious trouble. After a two-week exile to Lehigh Valley, Alvarado returned to the big leagues with a determination to establish his cutter and abandon his curveball, which resolved his control issues and unlocked his potential.
These Phillies are a resilient bunch, and they’ve delivered an unexpected playoff run. It’s been exciting to watch this city rediscover its love for its baseball team as the frustrations and futility of the last 11 seasons washed away. There hasn’t been a lot to cheer for in Philadelphia for the last few years, but the successes of the Phillies and Eagles have provided a welcome distraction.
As the season stands on the brink, I’m feeling a bit ambivalent. On the one hand, I know this team owes us nothing. They’ve had an incredible stretch over the past month, knocking off the Cardinals, Braves, and Padres. It just seems like they’re out of gas. Judging by his Game 2 start, Wheeler might not have anything left in the tank. Outside of a few big home-run moments, Rhys Hoskins has been utterly lost at the plate and even worse in the field. Realmuto and Nick Castellanos are also struggling despite flanking Harper, who’s been the hottest hitter in the playoffs.
The Astros look like the better team. For the entire year, they have been the better team, the best in baseball along with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They’re hitting with a bit more consistency and getting lights-out pitching performances. They’re playoff-tested, playing in their 4th World Series in 5 years. Everything is going their way, all the breaks (see: Trey Mancini’s catch in the 8th inning yesterday) and the pivotal moments (Chas McCormick’s insane snag at the wall). They have more talent and all of the momentum. Maybe it’s just their time.
And yet, it’s crushing to come so close to the top of the mountain and not reach that elusive summit. Two games, two lousy games, stand between the Phillies and the World Series. Nothing has come easy this season, and yet the Phillies are still alive. We’re talking about the Fightins, after all. Why can’t they do the impossible one more time and find a way to win? They’ve defied the narratives and expectations for most of the year anyway.
Finish the climb, and bring that damn trophy back to Broad Street.