Phillies Experience, Power Win the Day in Game 1 Thriller Over Arizona
It had worked in Game 1 of the NLCS a year ago. So, to Rob Thomson, if it wasn’t broken, don’t fix it. The Philadelphia Phillies second-year manager rarely leaves the dugout aside to switch pitchers. But Seranthony Domínguez had nowhere to hide after beginning the seventh inning with a walk and throwing error that brought the tying run to the plate with no outs in a game the Phillies felt like they had a stranglehold on.
“I just wanted to slow everything down for a minute,” Thomson said. “Make sure he understood that he’s gotta get after it, and we have all the confidence in the world in him.”
Though the situation was tense, faith has been easy for these Phillies to have for a while. These Arizona Diamondbacks carry a similar story as the Phillies a year ago. They snuck into the postseason for the first time in a long time as the No. 6 seed, swept a battled-tested opponent in the Wild Card and dispatched a big-brother division rival with ease right after.
Yet on Monday night, the team looking like last year’s Phillies was the one wearing the same jersey. Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper launched titanic solo homers to get the scoring started. Zack Wheeler largely locked it down before receiving a slightly quick hook. The former’s game was defined by a slump-busting shot, the latter’s by an iconic celebration. And the bullpen overcame a late pulse-racer caused by the exact same events to squeak out a two-run victory to grab control of yet another postseason series.
It’s easy to forget now, or at least discount it. But the Phillies trusted Domínguez more than any other right-handed reliever this time a year ago. He followed Wheeler’s seven-inning masterpiece in San Diego with a nine-pitch, two-strikeout eighth inning. Domínguez has lacked that swagger for most of 2023 but came through when called upon in the NLDS. There was still a path forward. It may not have been a pretty one, with Tommy Pham rocketing a 108.3 mph lineout and Alek Thomas lifting a fairly deep fly ball to right center that plated a run. But when Domínguez exited after the sac fly, he did so knowing he had accomplished Thomson’s goal.
“Just wanted to make sure, you know, give him some time, to get settled in,” Thomson said.
Domínguez watched from the dugout as José Alvarado finished the seventh. He worked around a two-out single in the eighth. And Craig Kimbrel rolled a 5-4-3 double-play to erase a free pass of his own to trigger the fireworks and lights show that have become almost common in Philadelphia. Another win in the ballpark that has the best home-field advantage in baseball history. Three more long balls for an offense that averaged nearly four per game in their Division Series dismantling of the Atlanta Braves. And a seventh straight Game 1 victory, making the Phillies the first team to defeat the Diamondbacks in the postseason as they aim to set another dominating tone.
“Everything’s about momentum in this time of year, you know,” Thomson said. “Arizona’s really good at creating momentum, then keeping it. So that’s one of the things that we need to do.”
The Phillies would have played on Harper’s birthday a year ago if their first NLDS clash with the Braves reached Game 5. No one was upset the Phillies moved the party up a day. Harper has accomplished so much in his already historic career. Having a birthday game was one of the few things that had not happened for the new 31-year-old. The Phillies already had momentum when Harper stepped up the plate thanks to a no-doubt lead-off homer. Zac Gallen mislocated another first-pitch fastball to Harper, who stared as it left his bat and came careening down in the corner of the visitor’s bullpen.
Harper has been stoic in the immediate aftermath of the 10 postseason home runs he’s launched as a Phillie. It’s one shy of Jayson Werth for the franchise record in 16 fewer games. Baseball’s biggest star left standing isn’t afraid to celebrate, though. He has custom handshakes with about half the roster and always makes a point of saluting his own bullpen and the crowd as he rounds the bases.
Then, an idea popped into his head as he shared his trademark salute with third-base coach Dusty Wathan. Harper held up his middle three left fingers and right ring finger and took a breath. Harper downplayed it after the game. But the message it sent was clear: the Phillies will keep doing things their way. It may not always be pretty. The Phillies nearly had a repeat of this year’s Game 2 in Atlanta, getting five runners to scoring position with less than two out in the third and fourth innings yet only driving in one.
But this is the way that has brought the Phillies here. The Phillies have been reluctant to change under Thomson’s watch, not from a position of stubbornness but of trust. It doesn’t always work. But Thomson has had a near-perfect pulse of the clubhouse in his 16-and-a-half months leading the Phillies. So, there was Schwarber with his third lead-off homer in the last two postseasons on Monday night.
“I never have any doubt with him,” Thomson said. “I have so much trust in him — and all of our guys, really.”
It’s never perfect. Alec Bohm and Bryson Stott stayed in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots and fell to 9-48 in the postseason, leaving three runners on each. But betting against Thomson has proven a generally unsuccessful proposition.
Last year’s Game 1 NLCS mound visit was the first Thomson had made for a non-pitching change since becoming the skipper. He may be a first-time manager. Few have been in a dugout for more postseason baseball than Thomson, Yankees bench coach from 2008 to 2017. The players have to do what it takes to win games, as Thomson is always quick to point out. In the end, the Phillies found ways to execute within the margins enough to earn their latest Game 1 victory. Another goal accomplished.
“Just very excited that we’re 1-0,” Harper said. “Looking forward to tomorrow.”