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Phillies Look To Amplify Closure, Complete Shorter Journey Against St. Louis

Alec Bohm and the Phillies won the regular season against the Cardinals. But winning a postseason series for the first time since 2010 is a whole different challenge. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

Phillies Look To Amplify Closure, Complete Shorter Journey Against St. Louis

The Phillies have not played at Citizens Bank Park since Sept. 25, and all that has changed since then is everything. The team that always collapses down the stretch didn’t. The team that had created some special moments during their decade-long drought but always bookended them with a meaningless end actually saved their best for last. The Phillies are back — and more importantly, back in the postseason for the first time since 2011.

The road back, of course, was arduous. That’s the way it’s been throughout the entirety of their eleven-year wait, which for a few days became the longest in Major League Baseball after the Mariners clinched about 48 hours before them. It required so much, and the last thing it called for was a ten-game regular-season-ending road trip. It could not have started worse, as the Phillies were swept in Chicago by a Cubs team with nothing to play for. After splitting the first two games of a four games in three days stint in D.C., they were even with the Brewers with five to play. But the Phillies took care of business against the Nationals, got some help in the form of a pair of Marlins wins in Milwaukee, and then ended their wait in storybook fashion.

Game 1 of their Wild Card Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, exactly 11 years to the date St. Louis knocked them out of the 2011 postseason in epic, stunning fashion, ends the journey that absolutely had to end to consider this season a success. It will probably go down as that even if the Phillies’ season ends in the next two to three games. But as far as the Phillies are concerned, there’s still a road back to finish.

That, of course, is the road back to the City of Brotherly Love. If the Phillies upset the Cardinals, who won the N.L. Central with a 93-69 record, they will have the opportunity to host a postseason game. It was fresh on the minds of the players even as they danced and drank Monday night away after punching their postseason ticket. It seems crazy to think that after the Phillies waited over 4,000 days to pop the champagne, they could do so twice in the same week. Beating St. Louis won’t be easy. But given everything that’s happened to the Phillies since the last time they were here, that may suit them well.

St. Louis presents some interesting challenges for the Phillies, particularly with their pitching staff. Their weapons in the back of the bullpen are well known. Giovany Gallegos was lights out from May 1 on and Ryan Helsley has been dominant all season. The latter seems to be ok after leaving St. Louis’s penultimate game with a thumb injury. But just as tricky could be how the Cardinals set up their rotation. Lefty Jose Quintana will start Game 1 and righty Miles Mikolas Game 2. Incredibly, there are four realistic options that could start Game 3, with the others earmarked for piggyback roles throughout the series.

Adam Wainwright was hit hard in September and surrendered four home runs in 14.2 innings against the Phillies this season. But few pitchers can match Wainwright’s experience, poise, and plus curveball. Wainwright missed the 2011 season due to Tommy John and is the closest comparable on this Cardinals roster to Chris Carpenter, who threw a complete game shutout against the Phillies to eliminate them in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. Jack Flaherty has battled injuries each of the last two seasons and got a test drive coming out of the bullpen in a meaningless game 161. Jordan Montgomery has been excellent (3.11 ERA) since coming over in a weird trade deadline move with the Yankees. Steven Matz struggled for most of the year as a starter but has a 1.69 ERA in five relief appearances. Maybe he opens Game 3.

The Cardinals could try to use this versatility to exploit favorable matchups. Making it’s taking advantage of the righty-heavy 4-5-6 of J.T. Realmuto, Alec Bohm, and Nick Castellanos. Same with a three lefties in four hitters stretch if Brandon Marsh or Bryson Stott hits ninth, with Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper presumably locked into the leadoff and third spots. It could force the Phillies to burn whichever of Marsh or Matt Vierling are on the bench sooner than they’d like.

St. Louis is choosing to carry 14 hitters and 12 pitchers, while the Phillies will likely stick with 13 of each. Neither team has a ton of quality left-handed options, outside of the suddenly lights out José Alvarado, of course. That makes it even more surprising the Phillies are opting for a roster construction that almost certainly excludes Darick Hall. Alvarado could be Philadelphia’s lone traditional southpaw reliever if Brad Hand is not able to return from the 15-day IL. It’s unclear if he would be a big spot option after struggling down the stretch. Another lefty, Bailey Falter, who mostly pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in 2021, should be there, too.

This is less relevant against the Cardinals because their lineup is stacked with righties. Albert Pujols is the obvious example, but not the only one. St. Louis’s big three is basically Barry Bonds against lefties versus merely good to very good against righties. As smarter people have noted, Carlson’s inclusion is important because the Cardinals are likely without Gold Glove outfielder Tyler O’Neill. The Cardinals would love to Carlson in games; he ranks 74th in outs above average and 71st in sprint speed. But it’s unclear if he’s the best option against righties Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola in Games 1 and 2.

Overall OPSOPS vs. LHPOPS vs. RHP
Albert Pujols.8951.146 (114 AB).747 (193 AB)
Paul Goldschmidt.9821.328 (112 AB).893 (449 AB)
Nolan Arenado.891.939 (112 AB).879 (445 AB)
Dylan Carlson.696.846 (128 AB).633 (304 AB)

Wheeler and Nola are the keys to the operation. The Phillies may have higher-paid players with more name recognition. But they built their lineup to survive if a couple of their top six hitters went cold. That isn’t the case with the rotation, which drops off after those two and again after Ranger Suárez, although the latter is an NLDS (or off-season) problem. Both pitchers have sub-three ERAs in 15 combined starts against St. Louis. Wheeler made consecutive starts against the Cardinals this year on July 3 and 8 and threw seven shutout innings both times. The postseason is a whole different animal. But the Phillies like their chances in a short series with those two workhorses.

Getting through seven innings, or at least into the seventh inning, is the benchmark. The Phillies have confidence in Alvarado and Zach Eflin, who looks completely at home in his first-ever stint as a high-leverage MLB reliever. He has allowed just one earned run in 7.2 innings since returning from a knee injury on Sept. 14. Everything else is murky. David Robertson and Seranthony Domínguez have both struggled mightily with control during the season’s final month. Rest could be enough to get the 37-year-old Robertson back on track; he has pitched just two innings since the Phillies’ final home game.

Domínguez, on the other hand, feels a bit shakier. Philadelphia’s next best consistent reliever, believe it or not, is probably Andrew Bellatti. Bellatti has also struggled with walks but his 12.9 K/9 is eleventh among qualified relievers. Connor Brogdon is an option, too, but he has a 4.29 post-All-Star break ERA that could easily be higher. Noah Syndergaard could also be used as a traditional reliever or perhaps a piggyback partner for Suárez in Game 3.

To make life easier on the starters so they can make life easier on the bullpen, fast starts on offense are imperative. The Phillies scored the first two runs of the game in just two of seven regular-season meetings with the Cardinals. Those seven games include two where the Phillies did not reach two runs, although they did win one of those.

Some may knock the Phillies offense for being home run heavy at a time of the year when the ball doesn’t fly as much in a series played entirely in the league’s fourth-most pitcher-friendly park. However, the Phillies were third in the Majors in batting average and seventh in OPS when batting in runners and scoring position. They have struggled with situational hitting at times but are better in the clutch than many give them credit for. Quintana can also be susceptible to walks, which Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins can create at the top of the order.

The Phillies are also one of the most aggressive on the base paths. That can backfire against a defensively sound team like St. Louis. But it can also be a way to tilt the margins in their favor. While Yadier Molina still feels and thinks the game like no other catcher, he is 40 years old, and his pop time to second base to second base has gone from second in baseball in 2021 to 66th this season. There will be opportunities for the Phillies to be aggressive, but they’ll have to pick their spots.

Right now, the Phillies have two major question marks in the middle of their lineup. Harper is hitting just .227/.325/.352 with only three home runs since returning from his broken thumb. Castellanos does not have an extra-base hit since coming back from an oblique injury on Sept. 27. Rob Thomson will trust both players because that is what the cool, calm, and collected Phillies interim manager does. Harper is one of a handful of Phillies with postseason experience and has hit 10 home runs in 89 at-bats under the bright lights of October. As long as he does not try to do too much, there’s a good chance he figures things out.

It’s also vital for the Phillies to take early leads and hold them into the late innings for their defense’s sake. If the Phillies are up late, expect Castellanos (or maybe Schwarber) to be replaced by Marsh/Vierling. Edmundo Sosa could replace Bohm at third in the late innings too if he’s ready to return from a hamstring injury. If Vierling is in right, Marsh is in center, and Sosa’s at third, the Phillies have above-average defenders (per Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average metric) at five of the eight positions. That doesn’t include Bryson Stott, who has picked up his play in all facets over the last few months. Suddenly, the massive gap in the field between the two teams isn’t so massive at all. But the Phillies have to get to that position, first.

There is definitely a path to victory for the Phillies in this series, albeit a strange one. A lot has changed in baseball since the last time they were in the postseason, with perhaps the biggest being how quickly starting pitchers are removed from games. Per MLB Network, Phillies starters threw an N.L. most 892.2 innings this season (both as of the end of play on Oct. 3). Unfortunately for the Phillies, the area where they have fortified their depth the most (at the plate) is the area it matters least in the postseason. To be clear, that’s not to say having a starting nine as dangerous offensively as the Phillies have doesn’t matter. But Hall, Nick Maton, Dalton Guthrie, Garrett Stubbs, and others who were pretty productive for the Phillies in the regular season won’t be much of a factor, if any, on this stage.

Limit the bullpen largely to Alvarado and Eflin and get the jump offensively, and suddenly victory doesn’t seem so far away. The latter has extra importance in this matchup as well. While a veteran Cardinals team likely won’t be phased by anything, a fanbase that knows this is the end of the line for Pujols and Molina and knows it might be for Wainwright too could get antsy if the Phillies start strong. If the Phillies were firing at peak powers — the entire lineup producing at strong clips, Domínguez and Robertson reverting back to August form — they could really make some noise. All of that probably isn’t happening. But enough of it could to the point of making the Cardinals really sweat.

The roles have flipped from 2011. The Cardinals aren’t the World Series favorite like that Phillies team was, but they clearly enter this series expecting to win it. Or, at the very least, expected by most to win it. This Phillies team isn’t as experienced as the 2011 Cardinals were, either. But they’ve got some experience, enough to form a dangerous combination with a group of kids who can’t even fathom the legends of the game they’re going up against, both past and present.

The Cardinals have young talent, too — Brendan Donovan, Tommy Edman, and Lars Nootbaar, among others. But Philadelphia’s has a special energy to it. It’s not that they aren’t blissfully unaware of the scars of the past; most of them played a part in 2021, as the Phillies nearly took out the eventual World Series champion Braves but just ran out of gas at the end. This year, they have youth capable of providing the extra punch they’ll probably need. And if the Phillies are to make the trip back to Philadelphia in a week with 45,000-plus crammed into Citizens Bank Park, they’ll need their youth to make some noise. In past years, that would have been too tall of an ask. This time, the moment is theirs for the taking.

Friday, Game 1: Phillies 6, Cardinals 4

Saturday, Game 2: Phillies 2, Cardinals 9

Sunday, Game 3: Phillies 3, Cardinals 1

Philadelphia Wins, 2-1

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Stats Courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, Baseball-Reference, and MLB.com

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