Phillies, Padres To Meet In Cinderella NLCS
If you asked people the odds of a defining moment for the Phillies occurring against the Padres this season about four months ago, they would say they were high — but only because it had already happened. On June 25, Bryce Harper took a 97 MPH fastball off his right thumb and immediately yelled in pain. Many in the City of Brotherly Love had the same reaction. The Phillies were playing better baseball under then-interim manager Rob Thomson. But three good weeks hardly seemed to matter when faced with the prospect of playing six to eight without the reigning NL MVP.
The Padres have also experienced their fair share of doubters. San Diego was the only team to have a more disheartening September last season than the Phillies, falling from early season contender to merely good to out of a Wild Card spot with a 7-21 tailspin to finish the year. They’ve been better throughout 2022. But for a while, it looked like that wouldn’t be better enough. They had to face a loaded Mets team that won 101 games just to bring postseason baseball back to San Diego in front of fans for the first time since 2006. And like the Phillies, it was all but inevitable that they would bow out to the biggest thorn in their side in recent years.
Except it wasn’t. For either side. The Phillies bashed the Atlanta Braves pitching staff, scoring seven, nine, and eight runs in their three victories. They outscored Atlanta 17-4 in the first two postseason games Citizens Bank Park hosted since 2011. The Padres held a Dodgers offense that scored 40 more runs in the regular season than any other team to just four in two games at Petco Park. Incredibly, the last two teams to clinch postseason berths are the last two standing in the National League.
San Diego is a fairly similarly constructed team to the Phillies, with a little more pitching depth and maybe a little less in their lineup. There are so many links between these two teams. But perhaps the most obvious dates back to the free agent class of 2018-19. Both teams landed one of the two generational talents on the market. And while both have largely lived up to the hype in the regular season, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signed their big-money deals with the goal of delivering in autumn. It took a little bit for both to get fully acclimated in their new clubhouses, but the growing pains are a thing of the past. Machado delivered his best offensive 162-game season (159 OPS+) and played his usual phenomenal defense at third. Harper went 8-16 in the NLDS and has three homers in his last four games.
The Padres were the lone team to make this postseason this season while finishing outside the top ten in runs scored (13th) and ERA (11th). They were, however, one of the league’s best defensively, recording 31 outs above average. For reference, Philadelphia was -33, even with some improvements as the season progressed.
The Phillies have some strong defenders on their bench that they can sub in if they’re leading late. But, of course, they need to get that lead first. The long ball will likely play a critical role in this series. The Phillies hit 205 homers during the regular season (5th), while San Diego allowed 173, which was tied for 12th most. Philadelphia’s figure also includes four in as many regular season contests at pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Two of them came from Kyle Schwarber, who the Phillies are looking for much more out of from the leadoff spot. After hitting the second-most home runs in the regular season, Schwarber has just one hit in the postseason.
Other than him, though, everyone in Philadelphia’s offense is stepping up. Rhys Hoskins crushed one of the most epic homers in team history in Game 3 of the Division Series. J.T. Realmuto turned his season around the last time the Phillies visited San Diego, rediscovering his power stroke. He is an asset in all areas of the game and should ground an already conservative Padres running game. Nick Castellanos had perhaps the game of his life to give the Phillies the early jump against Atlanta. But it’s the consistency that the bottom of the Phillies order — players like Jean Segura, Bryson Stott, Alec Bohm, Brandon Marsh, and more — that makes the Phillies so dangerous. It seems like one or two depth pieces step up in every game, preventing opposing staffs from taking a breath.
The Padres will throw out the best starting pitching the Phillies have faced this postseason after Atlanta’s rotation was comprised by illness and injuries. Both rotations had a 3.80 ERA in the regular season, although San Diego’s has a bit more depth. Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove are as good of a 1-2-3 punch as you’ll find. A lot will be made of the Phillies “breaking” Josh Hader back when he was a Brewer in June, but the Phillies sort of did the same, albeit to a lesser extent, with Musgrove. He had a spectacular 1.59 ERA when the Phillies roughed him up for six runs in seven innings in late June and pitched to a merely good 3.66 mark the rest of the way. He’s been spectacular this postseason, with Darvish and Snell taking care of business as well.
They aren’t the most overpowering trio in terms of velocity (though Snell is a bit of an outlier in this regard). But can locate and throw quality offspeed pitches. The Phillies’ offense was very aggressive against Atlanta’s pitching, so it’ll be interesting to see what their approach is here. Whatever it is might be different than in the regular season, when the Padres shutout Philadelphia in three of their seven meetings. Between Hader, former Phillie Luis García, Steven Wilson, Robert Suarez, and others, San Diego’s bullpen has a more velocity-focused approach. The Phillies are feeling a bit better about their backend with Seranthony Domínguez looking back in mid-summer form. They’ll feel even better if David Robertson is able to return from a calf strain.
Philadelphia’s bullpen will face its biggest test yet in this series. The unit has been much better since Thomson took over, but a seven-game series is a whole different challenge. The Phillies will expect Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola to be their usual selves. Their dominant pitching (combined 1.08 ERA this postseason) has set the rest of Philadelphia’s success in motion. Ranger Suárez only lasted 3.1 innings in his first career postseason start, which has hopefully shaken out all of his October nerves. Perhaps the Phillies put Suárez in between Wheeler and Nola to avoid having back-to-back games where the bullpen is heavily counted on and set up one of them to start Game 7 on regular rest, but that’s unlikely. Both sides also have to make decisions about their fourth starter as well.
It ultimately feels like this series will come down to whether San Diego’s offense can find another level. The Padres went all out at the deadline, springing for Juan Soto, Josh Bell, and Brandon Drury, but the returns have been underwhelming. Bell in particular has struggled in San Diego, putting up a .587 OPS in the regular season and a .516 mark in the postseason. Soto has been good, but not the otherworldly level he’d established as his baseline with Washington. It’s worth remembering both Soto and Bell have pretty extensive experience playing the Phillies from their time with the Nationals. Both have a career OPS over 1.000 against the Phillies, with Soto’s mark coming in a pretty significant 240 at-bat sample size.
Those three (and Machado) aren’t San Diego’s only weapons. Trent Grisham has been getting redemption for his 2019 postseason nightmare and is one of the league’s best defenders. And the Padres have a plethora of solid hitters to fill out their roster. However, this is a Phillies pitching staff that just held an outstanding Atlanta offense to a .191 batting average. Both teams enter this series with even more momentum than your typical semi-finalist. San Diego enters on the heels of three thrilling victories against one of baseball’s best regular season teams ever. The Phillies just curb-stomped the defending champions. Both teams believe they have that “special” type of magic that will carry them into November.
But it seems like the Phillies come into this series with just a little bit more. Philadelphia didn’t just beat the Braves; they beat them in several ways. They won with clutch two-out hits and with towering home runs. Their starting pitching carried them in Games 2 and 3. Their bullpen carried them in Games 1 and 4. They made some mistakes on defense, but even that part of their game came through at times.
At a different point in the season, maybe the Phillies would be ill-equipped for a seven-game series. But they’re as deep and hot as ever. And while the series will start in front of an electric San Diego crowd, the series will swing in front of a raucous Citizens Bank Park crowd. It’s where the Phillies took over against Atlanta. And it’s where, one way or another, they’ll do the same in this series.
Tuesday, Game 1: Phillies 4, Padres 3
Wednesday, Game 2: Phillies 2, Padres 8
Friday, Game 3: Padres 3, Phillies 6
Saturday, Game 4: Padres 7, Phillies 8
Sunday, Game 5: Padres 0, Phillies 6
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Stats via MLB.com, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Savant