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Phillies Show Concerning Signs In Game 2, But Their Winning Plan Is Still Intact

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For the second straight game, the Astros got the early jump on the Phillies. This time, Philadelphia couldn’t overcome an underwhelming performance from one of their aces. (David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

Phillies Show Concerning Signs In Game 2, But Their Winning Plan Is Still Intact

The first warning sign occurred on the first pitch Zack Wheeler threw to Jose Altuve. It wasn’t just that the Astros second baseman laced it for a double — a bounce back from a tough postseason start was all but inevitable for Altuve, whose .920 regular season OPS was fourth best in baseball. But it was the velocity of the pitch that was concerning. Yes, Wheeler left his first pitch sinker over the heart of the plate. Maybe Altuve still starts a three-run Houston first inning if the pitch approached 100 miles per hour.

But it didn’t. Instead, the radar gun read just 96.4.

There are a lot of reasons why the Phillies are three wins away from their third World Series title. Perhaps none is bigger, however, than the presence of Wheeler and Aaron Nola anchoring their rotation. The Phillies parlayed their strongest regular season in 11 years into boosts for their aces designed at helping them succeed at this time of year. They found extra days of rest for Nola whenever they could. They didn’t rush Wheeler back from a late IL stint. It was made possible by the multi-game lead they held for most of the second half. And it was designed to lead the Phillies here — and farther.

Through the first three rounds of the postseason, the two posted a stellar 2.32 ERA. They pitched at least six innings in six of seven starts. In their first two World Series starts, neither made it out of the fifth inning. Each allowed five runs. It could have put the Phillies drastically behind the eight ball as they head back to Philadelphia for the final three games Citizens Bank Park will host this season. A split was always a solid outcome. But it feels more like a massive break considering the struggles of the two men that have led them here more than almost anyone.

Nola will be called upon at least once more in this series. Unless one of the teams sweeps the trio of contests in Philadelphia, the same will be true of Wheeler. Even that is not a guarantee. Nothing is on baseball’s biggest stage, except that everything means more and will be treated as such. That’s why the Phillies were willing to push Ranger Suárez through an inning of relief in Game 1 even though it means pushing his start back to Game 4, making a potential Game 7 even more uncertain. Nola has thrown 14.1 more innings this season when including the postseason than any in his career. Wheeler threw a career-high 213.1 last season. Maybe their struggles to start the series are just jitters resulting from the powerful, unfamiliar feelings of the game’s biggest stage. Maybe it’s something more concerning.

None of that bothers the Phillies. They have been in far worse positions to be concerned about a situation that they have already proved they can handle. In each of the last two rounds, the Phillies split the first two games on the road. They knew that a sweep at home meant dousing their locker room with champagne. They took care of the Braves in decisive and the Padres in dramatic fashion. Yes, the Astros are a much tougher test. And the World Series is a much harder, more intense level than any the Phillies have conquered in their incredible run.

So far, it seems like nothing has phased these Phillies because of how fresh memories far bleaker than a postseason elimination are. Most of the Astros’ core cannot comprehend what the Phillies went through just to earn just one party in Houston, the one they celebrated after clinching their first postseason berth in 11 years on Oct. 3. Their fanbase can, but even those memories have been suppressed nearly as much as possible by the incredible six-year run they are on. The Astros present the biggest test to the naive energy that has carried the Phillies to this point. That was the case before Houston surged to a three-run first inning that made the difference in a 5-2 series evening win. It is even more so now.

There were a lot of reasons many did not expect the Phillies to reach this point. One of them, although not the biggest, was their lack of big-game experience. That is not really a concern now. The Phillies know they will host over 120,000 raucous fans between Monday and Wednesday night, with far more rooting for their success. They know how great it feels to take control of and put away a series on their home field. Their weaknesses are not entirely gone even though they are 10-3 so far in the biggest stretch of baseball in their lives. And they are amplified right now because they are facing a team that has churned out talent to fix any flaw they might have.

Both sides have a piece at or near the top of this list.

Yet the Phillies know they can beat them because they already have. That knowledge is just as valuable as the win they have in the bank as they return to the Bank for the next three games of the Fall Classic. The Astros have put a significant dent in Philadelphia’s biggest strength. Yet they are only heading to one of the sport’s greatest atmospheres on level ground. Both seem like the type of trends capable of carrying a team to a championship. Only one can prevail. The Astros had their say in Game 2. On Monday night, the Phillies have their chance to counter.

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