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One More Time: Phillies Lengthy Journey To Joy Nearly Done; 7th-Day Stretch

At times, the Phillies have made things harder than they should have. But they have consistently stepped up when they needed to. A Red October is almost here. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

One More Time: Phillies Lengthy Journey To Joy Nearly Done; 7th-Day Stretch

Back when the postseason was talked about in terms of a streak instead of a drought in this city, the Phillies headed to Houston for a pivotal series. The 2012 Phillies had been a shell of themselves for most of the season. But as key pieces returned in summer, they started to come together again. When that fateful series in Minute Maid Park began, they had won seven straight and eight of their last ten. They would have been out of it in the previous season’s format. But Major League Baseball had just added a second Wild Card to both leagues. The Phillies trailed the St. Louis Cardinals, who ended their most recent postseason appearance in heartbreaking fashion, by just three games for a spot.

A core that was used to wins coming easily, one that had clinched their fifth consecutive postseason berth in Houston the year prior, soon found out just how hard success is to achieve. The 45-98 Astros, 14 games worse than any other team entering the series, beat the Phillies three times out of four. The bullpen blew late leads twice. The offense was shut out in the other loss. Sure, the Phillies rebounded to win their next four. But the damage was done. They lost five of six after that last brief burst. The fifth loss officially eliminated them from postseason contention for the first time since 2006.

With that, a drought officially began. 3,657 days later, and over 4,000 since the team’s most recent postseason game, the Phillies have clawed their way to the cusp of concluding it. It has not been easy. And there were several times over the past week when it felt like it might be slipping away. The Phillies lost three straight to a Cubs team that is playing better baseball as of late but is still just 73-86 on the year. They were demolished in the front half of Saturday’s doubleheader by nine runs and turned to a position player to record the last out.

Dreaming about the euphoria of the Phillies returning to the postseason is one thing. But capturing what it would feel like is much harder, the sense of the unknown growing stronger with each of their ten consecutive misses. Maybe it would feel clear as day from the very beginning, an unstoppable wave of excitement resulting from a beginning as invigorating as Kyle Schwarber smoking a lead-off home run on Opening Day. Maybe the end would result from the same doubt lingering, such as fears that Schwarber’s debut lead-off blast will be remembered the same as Andrew McCutchen’s in 2019, right up until the last out.

No one will be certain until it happens. But whatever feeling comes from a happy ending is on the verge of being revealed. The journey to this stage wasn’t easy. It probably didn’t have to be this way, but maybe it’s all the sweeter that it is. The Phillies had moved in lockstep with the Milwaukee Brewers for almost two weeks. Entering Saturday, the teams either both won or both lost on 10 of the last 12 days that both of them played. Before the weekend, the last time the Phillies had won and the Brewers had lost on the same day was Sept. 14.

Then, it happened two days in a row. It’s hard to think of a more ironic but fitting source of help for the Phillies than the Miami Marlins. From 2018-2021, the Phillies went 8-11 against the Marlins in September. That includes a brutal seven-game road trip in 2020 in which they lost five times, a streak that helped catapult Miami to the postseason for the first time since 2003. Their 6-6 record in the other Septembers simply wasn’t good enough considering the best of those four Marlins teams finished 67-95. And Miami’s inexplicable domination of Phillies teams that seemed far superior wasn’t exclusive to stretch runs, either.

But while the Phillies largely took care of business against the Washington Nationals, Miami authored a trio of thrilling victories in Milwaukee. An eighth-inning Avisaíl Garcia grand slam on Thursday prevented the Brewers from pulling a half-game ahead of the Phillies (not counting the tie-breaker) for the N.L.’s final Wild Card position. The Phillies have been in a postseason spot every day since July 28 — there is no telling what falling out of it would have done to them. Two nights later, Bryan De La Cruz delivered a two-run single in the ninth inning to give the Marlins a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t lose. And even though the Brewers tied Sunday’s game in the ninth and tenth innings, then loaded the bases with one out in the eleventh, the Marlins found a way. With some encouragement from their new best friends, of course.

Monday is not the first day during the drought the Phillies have the opportunity to make the postseason. Day 3,278 was Sept. 27, 2020, the final day of the year’s 60-game regular season. The Phillies were still alive but needed to win and some major help. The Cardinals had to beat the Brewers. They did. The Padres had to beat the Giants. They did. But the Phillies could not muster a single run against the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League’s best team. Aaron Nola simply ran out of gas, unable to finish the fourth inning of the biggest start of his career. They lost. The wait continued.

Sure enough, Nola will once again take the mound tonight against the American League’s best team with a chance to clinch. But the pressure is significantly lessened this time. If the Phillies do not win Monday, a Brewers loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks would reduce their magic number to zero. If neither of those happens, same routine on Tuesday. And, if necessary, Wednesday.

The Phillies aligned their rotation to set up Zack Wheeler and Nola to pitch Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-3 N.L. Wild Card Series. It’s a risky proposition for a team that has so much riding on just getting there. Any postseason success the Phillies achieve is likely just house money. It is worth acknowledging, though, that just reaching the postseason would not be enough to bring back the electric atmosphere of sold-out Citizens Bank Park full of 45,000-plus rally-towel waiving fans. The Phillies must advance past the Wild Card Series to make that reality.

It is exciting to think about these possibilities, especially after how strongly the present shook everyone over the past week. The Phillies have spent most of the past two months operating with at least somewhat of a cushion even before factoring in the tie-breaker. That luxury disappeared after the Phillies lost the first half of Saturday’s doubleheader. At that point, the Phillies and Brewers were deadlocked with five games left each.

Four of those games are in the books, and all of the outcomes favor the Phillies. All season, the Phillies have been a team that has ridden momentum, for better and for worse. Their slow start seemed to be spiraling by the end of May, as they finished the month just 21-29. They were the eleventh worst team in all of baseball despite surpassing the luxury tax for the first time in franchise history.

Schwarber homered the first day of June, and the Phillies won. A lot of both have happened since. When the Phillies needed a steadying presence in the clubhouse, Schwarber has been there. When they needed a spark at the plate, such as on Saturday night, Schwarber has delivered, often in high-arching, long-distance fashion. No outfielder in the franchise’s 140-year history has homered more times in a season than Schwarber’s N.L.-leading 44.

The Phillies hitting on a big-name free agent signing was hardly a shock. They have done so with Harper. Same with Wheeler and then some. Even though he was a trade acquisition at first, J.T. Realmuto counts as well. But as past seasons have proven, that itself isn’t enough.

So, the Phillies found more. Matt Vierling is hot once again. He drove in three runs with a triple and homer on Saturday night and has proven to know a thing or two about game-winning hits. Whether it be his walk-off single against Toronto a few weeks ago or what is proving to be an increasingly more massive game-winning ninth-inning blast in Milwaukee in May, Vierling has filled in admirably at six different positions. Nick Maton has an OPS of .900 and earlier in September basically won a game against Sandy Alcántara all by himself.

If Bryce Harper had produced a .847 OPS from June 28-Aug. 21, it would have been a bit underwhelming but still acceptable. For Darick Hall to deliver that number in that span was a vital lift for a Phillies team in need of power with Harper out and Nick Castellanos slumping in June and July. Bailey Falter got the Phillies back on track Friday, snapping a five-game skid with six shutout innings of work. He has a 3.07 ERA in eight starts since the start of August.

Alec Bohm has taken a significant leap forward at the plate, in the field, and with his approach. Frustration and expletives have given way to smooth swings and improved defense. During the only calendar month the Phillies were completely without Harper (July), he had a 1.089 OPS. One of the most underrated moments of the Phillies’ season was a go-ahead three-run eighth-inning lefty-lefty shot by Bryson Stott on June 25. It prevented the Phillies from falling to 0-4 post-All-Star break, nipping any potential narratives of a second-half slumber in the bud. Their youth has gone from maligned to largely magnificent. It may be the most obvious reason why things are not just different, but better.

The Phillies have battled so hard for so long to be where they are today. The margins are always so thin. The teams of the past five seasons could have easily made the postseason if just a few things zigged instead of zagged. Same for the 2022 Phillies. But they are where they are for a reason and because they deserve to be here. It’s not that there haven’t been good memories during the drought. There have been — a lot of them, in fact. But most if not all of them felt a little bit tainted, especially in recent years, by not having a happy ending to associate them with.

The treasure chest containing the joy of reaching the postseason has been locked for so long. The Phillies, who have been comprised of so many individuals over the years, from players to coaches to management, have tried so many ways to open it. It has taken so much trial and error, a tremendous amount of effort, and even more time.

If the Phillies end their wait during the next three days, it will bring a tremendous amount of closure. It is sad that things did not work with McCutchen and Héctor Neris and Maikel Franco and Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez and so many of the faces that have donned red pinstripes during the drought that seemed like they would be key members to bringing the Phillies back to the postseason. But there are still players here, including but certainly not limited to Jean Segura, Zach Eflin, and David Robertson, who a Red October would have an extra meaning to. This season is likely their last chance to get it. Players like Rhys Hoskins and Aaron Nola and Realmuto may have more opportunities, but tasting the postseason for the first time is still special.

Usually, a team with so many players, especially key ones, lacking postseason experience needs a “learning year” before they can make a run. But the Phillies have so much experience in what not to do they have eliminated more paths of failure than those teams. It is a weird mix of desperation and comfort.

It is tough to forecast what will happen because of just how unprecedented this feels. The Phillies have shown some signs of cracking, but their spirit has not been broken. They’ve blasted music during good times and bad. Rob Thomson has emphasized calmness since taking over as interim manager on June 3. If the Phillies return to the postseason, the interim qualifier will likely be removed. The Phillies still need to dig deep. But they also need to take a deep breath. Once again, Schwarber is there to let everyone know.

“Baseball’s fun,” said Schwarber after the Phillies beat the Nationals 8-2 on Saturday night. “That’s why we all said, ‘We have to enjoy this.’ There’s a lot of people not in this position that we’re in right now. A lot of people are making their offseason plans right now. We’re trying to make sure we’re not doing that.”

Different plans are being made around the Phillies right now. How much champagne to buy in anticipation of that one last happy result. How to assemble the visitor’s clubhouse at Minute Maid Park from wearing the effects of an eleven-year wait too hard. And of course, where to travel after Wednesday — likely to St. Louis, although the Phillies are just one game behind San Diego for the second Wild Card spot. They would probably prefer to stick at three and avoid playing the Mets, who have had their number all regular season. Even if New York improbably wins the division, facing the Braves wouldn’t feel much better.

Beggars can’t be choosers, of course. Right now, though, the Phillies are neither. They are what they set out to be in some ways and completely different in others. Each aspect of their game has led them to victories at times throughout the season. Thomson has trusted his players and largely been rewarded. It’s been reflected in things like Realmuto’s historic 20-20 season, just the second ever by a catcher. Castellanos’s emergence in August before he was sidelined by an oblique injury offered further proof. It isn’t a bullet-proof formula. For example, Kyle Gibson has stayed in the rotation but proved unable to turn his end-of-season struggles around. Schwarber has been a fixture in the lead-off spot despite coming with more streakiness than teams typically look for at the top of their lineup.

Overall, the Phillies are 64-43 since Thomson took the reigns. It is the best baseball they have played since the glory days of eleven years prior. It may not always be pretty. But style points have not been a prerequisite for this franchise for a long time. They have avoided the lengthy losing streak that would have seemed inevitable in years past. Even despite some of their recent hiccups, the Phillies no longer feel like a group pulling in opposite directions. Sure, the defense is still sloppy sometimes. The bullpen, especially (and understandably) Seranthony Domínguez and Robertson, is showing signs of fatigue. But there is no need, or room, for panic under Thomson’s watch.

That feeling has not quite taken over the fanbase the same way it seemingly has in the Phillies’ clubhouse. But it is starting to. In truth, though, it makes sense. Since the last time the Phillies made the postseason, only one major four sports team in all of Philadelphia has so much as reached their sport’s conference final. Thankfully, that team, the 2017 Eagles, finished the job. But even still, the first instinct when it comes to sports of most in the City of Brotherly Love is to complain, no matter how justified it is.

When it comes to the Phillies, it usually has been. The franchise has had only two extended periods of success, from 1976-1983 (six postseason appearances, two N.L. pennants, one World Series championship) and of course 2007-2011 (five straight N.L. East titles, two N.L. pennants, one World Series championship). Other than that, success for the Phillies has been blips on the radar, reading more like the fulfillment of the law of averages than truly something to be revered to those who didn’t witness it.

The Phillies have had some great individual performances this year and throughout their history. But it’s how the 2022 team has come together that makes them so special.

Who knows how the 2022 Phillies will go down in time. Maybe they are on the cusp of starting something much bigger than anyone imagines. Maybe this season just serves to satiate fans eager to remember what baseball happiness feels like.

Whatever it is, though, won’t impact the party the Phillies are on the cusp of celebrating. They have witnessed that dream play out in front of them twice since 2018. But both times, they sat on the wrong side of it. The chance to flip the script at long last and lose themselves in the exuberance that all sports, but perhaps none like baseball, provide is right in front of them. It is clearer than it’s been in 4,014 days.

All it takes is one.

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A major salute is due to the Seattle Mariners, who clinched their first postseason trip since 2001 over the weekend, ending what was the longest active postseason drought in professional sports. Now, the Phillies have the chance to pursue a similar breakthrough.
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