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The Philadelphia Phillies are going back to the postseason. They really did it. (Erik Williams/USA Today)

In Style, Phillies Make The Final Push To Return To Red October

The Philadelphia Phillies are going back to the postseason. They really did it. (Erik Williams/USA Today Sports)

Right around 10 P.M. local time in Houston, Zach Eflin jogged toward the pitcher’s mound at Minute Maid Park largely, but not entirely, entrenched in uncharted territory. Eflin had pitched in relief just five times before it became the only way he could play a role in the Phillies’ latest chase for a Red October after suffering another knee injury. Improbably, Monday was not the first time he pitched in relief in a game that would send the Phillies into the postseason if they won. In fact, Eflin did not allow a run in the final two innings of the Phillies’ 2020 season.

Back then, the Phillies stumbled to a 1-6 finish that left them a game short of ending a drought that already felt too long. This time, though, everything felt different. On that aforementioned day two years ago, the Phillies received help from Giants and Brewers losses to keep their hopes alive. On a different night, with a different Phillies team on the field, Milwaukee rallying from 4-1 down in the ninth and 5-4 in the tenth on Monday to win and stay alive in the Wild Card race would have been demoralizing. This time, it felt like a blessing. The Phillies have not played in a postseason game since Oct. 7, 2011, and everything since then has been so hard. Success has been fleeting and microscopic since. The Phillies had made a habit of making everything harder than it had to be.

Yet it was that habit that made Monday, Oct. 3, the day the Phillies put a finite date — this Friday, which happens to be the eleventh anniversary of the fateful fifth game of the 2011 NLDS — so much sweeter. It was one thing to wonder if the failures of the past week would be the final test. Experiencing that becoming reality was quite another.

If the drought had ended in Milwaukee, which it looked like it would while the Phillies game was still in progress, it still would have been so sweet. There was virtually no ending to the Phillies’ postseason drought, which became the sport’s longest after the Mariners clinched over the weekend, that would have been a bad one.

The ending that was, however, would almost certainly be the brightest shade of red on a Baseball Savant chart. Even more impressive than J.T. Realmuto’s pop-time or Bailey Falter’s extension. The stage could not have been set any better. A return to the place not only where the beginning of the drought began to feel inevitable, but where they last clinched a postseason berth, a brief 4,037 days ago.

The Phillies have been on big regular season stages before. And though none felt quite like this, there’s no belief like seeing. So, Kyle Schwarber registered the first pitch he saw and crushed it 394 feet to left field. The team that has always been playing from behind late in the season, but at long last entered the end out in front in the standings, made sure they did the same in game 160.

It probably shouldn’t have come down to this. But Schwarber’s blast made it pretty clear there was a reason that it did. If that didn’t, the first 82 pitches Aaron Nola made the Phillies’ fate crystal. He was brilliant from the beginning and hardly wavered. Only three Astros hitters worked a three-ball count. Only two of Houston’s first twenty hitters got the ball out of the infield. The longest-tenured Phillie, usually derided for his failure in big games, followed up a sub-3.00 ERA September with 6.2 innings of perfection in the first October start of his career.

Four days from now, he will make his second.

The bad vibes that had become synonymous with this franchise at several junctures, but especially over the prior 4,013 days, no longer stood a chance. They offered a last-gasp effort when Hunter Renfroe homered to kickstart Milwaukee’s comeback while the Phillies were still nursing a 1-0 lead. Less than a minute later, Bryson Stott doubled the lead with a laser over the right-field fence for the rookie’s third hit in as many at-bats. Three minutes later, Schwarber sent another baseball into orbit. The Phillies weren’t back in control. But only because they’d never forgone it.

There had still been a bit of frustration in the time between Schwarber’s first and second long balls as the Phillies consistently got runners on base but failed to capitalize. But this time, their missed opportunities weren’t about to turn around and bite them. In fact, they weren’t really missed opportunities at all. Just opportunities to maximize the drama and, eventually, excitement around one of the most consequential games in franchise history. It was the long-awaited bridging of two eras. The success of 2007-2011 finally meshing with a new, lovable core that just needed to give everyone a reason to celebrate them. Now, there are over 4,000 of them.

So, when Brandon Marsh caught a routine fly ball from Mauricio Dubón to wrap it all up, the Phillies celebrated as such. They popped all of the champagne. Interim manager Rob Thomson, who is the manager going forward in all but title only, gave a speech. So did owner John Middleton. Stott and José Alvarado, who went from key parts of the Phillies’ failure in May to key parts of their success since the summer, hopped on Instagram Live and gave fans even more of what they desired. Jean Segura and Realmuto will no longer be the two active players with the most regular-season games played without having reached the postseason. Rhys Hoskins, whose home run barrage down the stretch in 2017 started to transition the Phillies into competitiveness, was tearing up. Then he screamed at the faithful, too.

The scoreboard in right field read “Congratulations Philadelphia” in recognition as the Phillies celebrated on the field. It wasn’t all that long ago the Astros suffered a drought just one season shorter than Philadelphia’s. You don’t realize how hard it is until it happens. The two most important Phillies at the plate Monday both ended May batting under .200. Stott spent most of that month in Triple-A. Alvarado had time with the Iron Pigs, too. Nola has received some of the least run support of any pitcher in the Majors all season. Eflin, the team’s second-longest tenured player, is the only other direct link besides Nola to the joy of the past.

Once again, however, there is joy in the present of Phillies baseball. Everything in this big blue world has changed since the last time the Phillies played in the postseason. Who knows how much will change before they punch another ticket there. Right now, that does not matter. The big picture is no longer the biggest headline surrounding the Philadelphia Phillies. What they did on Oct. 3 is. It will live in infamy in the lore of this franchise.

It took 178 days for the 2022 Phillies to make their mark. But it’s one that will not be forgotten.

Belief never left the Phillies. It was not always easy to remember that. But now, it will be impossible to forget for a long, long time.

If you listen closely, you’ll hear a tune very familiar to the Phillies and their shortstop in the background.
“Livin’ in this big blue world, with my head up in outer space. I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K, I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K.”

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