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Phillies Execute Their Winning Formula, Sweep Cardinals To Advance

The Cardinals didn’t make it easy — it wouldn’t have been right if they had. But the Phillies won the way they’re best equipped to in Game 2, and march further into October as a result. (Yong Kim/Philadelphia Inquirer)

Phillies Execute Their Winning Formula, Sweep Cardinals To Advance

The Phillies were still pretty far from advancing when Aaron Nola took the mound in the bottom of the second inning. But the gears were already starting to churn inside the heads of Phillies fans everywhere. Bryce Harper had launched a solo home run in the top of the inning to give the Phillies an all-important lead. If Nola could lock things down, like Zack Wheeler did on Friday, like Nola himself did on Monday to lead the Phillies to the postseason for the first time since 2011, the light would be crystal clear.

Getting to that point is much easier said than done. Expecting your starter to pitch into the seventh inning is something that just doesn’t happen much anymore — especially in the postseason. Sure, it was common the last time the Phillies were here. But a lot has changed between now and then.

However, the Phillies built a team around Wheeler and Nola because they knew they were capable of October brilliance. It is their biggest calling card in a quick round like the best-of-three Wild Card Series. They just had to get them there.

This year, the Phillies did, and their aces delivered from there. 6.1 shutout innings for Wheeler on Friday. 6.2 shutout innings for Nola on Saturday. Two victories in two games for the Philadelphia Phillies, who are advancing to the NLDS after recording just the second series sweep in franchise history. Yes, it was only two games. But every milestone is worth celebrating for a franchise that spent so much time in between significant ones.

This year, the Phillies truly are everything they promised to be and more. It was a long time coming. Past seasons offered a slow fade from the excitement of Opening Day to the eventual dreadful ending. But this time, there was delight when Edmundo Sosa tracked down a pop-up about three feet from the Phillies dugout. He did a subtle but gleeful hop while doing so, as is becoming tradition for these Phillies. Alec Bohm and Garrett Stubbs jumped for joy and were the first to embrace him. After eleven years of trying to remember the joy the Cardinals experienced at Citizens Bank Park on Oct. 7, 2011, the Phillies experienced it in full force at Busch Stadium. They’re still standing.

After a chaotic come-from-behind victory in Game 1, the Phillies won Game 2 in the ways they are built to win — and the ways they believe they can. They got the big hit from their $330 million superstar in Harper to start the party. Nola completely shut down a Cardinals offense that scored 772 regular season runs, tied for fifth most in baseball. José Alvarado and Zach Eflin got some of the most meaningful outs from the bullpen. That is how everyone on the outside saw the Phillies winning this series if they were to do so.

But the Phillies knew they had more in them. So, their defense stepped up. Specifically Alec Bohm, the kid who nearly started the year in Triple-A and cursed the fanbase for booing him for a hat-trick of errors in the first three innings of the fourth game of the year. He also cracked two doubles in the series, the latter of which ended with him scoring a critical insurance run on a two-strike Kyle Schwarber sac fly on Saturday. Alvarado and Eflin were huge, but so were David Robertson and especially Seranthony Domínguez. The former set the stage for Friday’s epic comeback with a clean eighth inning. The latter fanned Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, potentially the top two NL MVP vote-getters, back-to-back with two on the eighth in Game 2.

It’s the type of depth the Phillies have been lacking for so long. It showed in those relief performances. It showed in Sosa’s mad dash to the plate on Friday and his tougher-than-it-looks catch to end the series. And in the effective Matt Vierling/Brandon Marsh platoon in center field. In hitting coach Kevin Long’s “pass the baton” mentality. Infield coach Bobby Dickerson’s work with Bohm and Bryson Stott. Second-year pitching coach Caleb Cotham’s smooth handling of the pitching staff. And, most importantly, it showed in the seemingly endless amount of champagne they sprayed after it was all said and done.

Much was made of the urgency for the Cardinals to succeed this year, and deservedly so. Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright are undoubtedly future Hall of Famers. Pujols and Molina ended their legendary careers with singles that put them on base as the potential tying run in each of the last two innings. But there was far more urgency in the Phillies’ side dugout than there would be for most cores making their postseason debut. Their mix features franchise staples like Nola, Eflin, and Rhys Hoskins who have heard the stories of how amazing a Red October is. It is combined with veterans who know how the special aura of the postseason like Schwarber, Harper, and Robertson. And with kids like Stott and Bohm, who bring the type of energy that is vital to postseason success, especially on the road.

It is a dangerous mix, and that would be true even if they hadn’t realized their potential. But for two cathartic days in St. Louis, the Phillies maximized it. Doing so was so hard to achieve. For years, the Phillies have agonized over the small details that eventually derailed them. Losses to weak opponents here, frustrating defensive blunders there, historic bullpen collapses everywhere. So many postseason spots there for the taking that just slipped through their hands, often in comical fashion.

The Phillies averaged 28,458 fans per home game this season, 16th in baseball. It’s not that the passion Philadelphia fans are known for disappeared. It was repressed beneath unrecognizable face after unrecognizable face that filtered in and out during their rebuild. By the hyped-up prospects who didn’t live up to expectations. By the blunders that became synonymous with the franchise, with no recent success to offer as a counter-argument. The enduring failure turned passionate frustration into the cold shoulder of apathy.

There is still a lot to happen between now and Friday when the Phillies play their first game at Citizens Bank Park since the one that ended an era of their own eleven years ago. For one, the Phillies will play the first two games of the NLDS at Truist Park in Atlanta. While the Cardinals were a connection to the (recent) past of Phillies baseball, the Braves have been an all-too-familiar thorn in the current group’s side. It’s not that the Phillies haven’t won against the Braves; they have, and in big moments, too. But it is one thing to face a team you’ve been told used to celebrate in front of your faces. It’s another to face one you’ve experienced doing so — twice.

Maybe that works in the Phillies’ favor. The Phillies have defied expectations at so many points this season it would be foolish to count them out. They will understandably be underdogs against the Braves, a role they and the city will embrace.

There is no telling what will happen over the next five days. But when Friday rolls around, the Philadelphia faithful will once again pack the seats. They will stand wherever there is space in the ballpark. They will scream with a fervor only an 11-year wait can produce. For years, they and the entire organization have heard about how the difficulties the drought produced would just make the ending sweeter. This week — this week (!!) — they will finally get to experience that joy again.

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