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With Blasts, Bullpen, Phillies Solidified As Team to Beat in NL East

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

With Blasts, Bullpen, Phillies Solidified as Team to Beat in NL East

As 46,000 held their collective breath, staring at the baseball headed for the left-center field gap, Johan Rojas raced to his right and, for a moment, hesitated. In the third batter of his first Major League game on July 15, Rojas took away extra bases with a diving grab and doubled the runner off first. He was 1-20 at this point in the postseason, hitless in this tense Division Series between two rivals whose hatred has boiled from mild to malicious over the last two Octobers.

That stat line could have been the defining takeaway from this series for Rojas. It would not have lessened the joy clinched 50 minutes later when the Phillies ended the season of another 100-plus win Braves team after just one postseason victory. But it’s felt like every Phillie has had their moment at some point in the last two falls, and this was Rojas’s.

The hesitation escaped. Instinct kicked in. Rojas lunged to his right, just like Shane Victorino did in this spot 15 years ago, and came down in his moment, ball in glove, bases left loaded. Everybody in Citizens Bank Park knew how that story ended. They know what it feels like, and what it doesn’t.

They know this team is legit.

It cannot be understated enough how remarkable what the Phillies have accomplished the last two autumns is. There were 4,025 consecutive days without postseason baseball here. Now, there is Rojas, a 23-year-old promoted straight from Double-A, thriving under the bright lights. There’s another bullpen parade of five relievers, the first five of which have 529 regular season saves. Take away Craig Kimbrel, and it’s still 112. Matt Strahm, who ended the game with a perfectly placed slider that Vaughn Grissom could only offer a half-hearted pass at, has six.

Nick Castellanos did not hit a home run in 17 postseason games a year ago. He had never recorded an OPS above .600 in a postseason round before this series. Two more towering fly balls to left field later, and he finished this NLDS at 1.796. Trea Turner, whose story is well known by those near and far from Philadelphia, committed three errors against Atlanta, one of which sparked the Braves’ Game 2 comeback. All was forgiven when his game-winning drive rocketed over the left field wall in the bottom of the fifth inning. Moments for everyone.

When the Phillies finally returned to the postseason a year ago, October veteran Kyle Schwarber stressed the team focus that takes over at this time of year. Ironically, embracing it has created memories for almost every key individual to remember forever — even ones that aren’t on the roster.

“I’m fortunate that he’s able to be here with me, and feel these moments — just so that it’s real for him,” Castellanos told MLB Network postgame about his oldest son, Liam. “These memories are gonna be something that he can always look back on for the rest of his life.”

The 10-year-old put his hands to his mouth and raced to the bottom of Section G in the Diamond Club as his dad raced around the bases under the pulsating lights. Castellanos has captured the attention of the boisterous Phillies fanbase in part because they recognize how thoughtful he is. He embraced Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox in the clubhouse in a brief moment of sanctuary as the alcohol flew around them. It may be a familiar surrealness, but that doesn’t mean it’s taken for granted.

“We haven’t gotten to that next level yet,” said catcher J.T. Realmuto. “‘Cause the next level to us is winning the World Series.”

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Rob Thomson‘s managerial choices would have seemed outrageous. But just like a year ago, Thomson managed with calculated aggression. Even with Ranger Suárez at just 69 pitches through five innings of two-run ball, everyone knew he wasn’t facing Ronald Acuña Jr. a third time. Spencer Strider‘s final pitch of the night was a 100 mph fastball. But it leaked over the plate, and it was to a Castellanos who had already reached base against him twice. Castellanos drilled it 415 feet into the left-field seats. The nervousness of a one-run lead eased — slightly.

It wasn’t necessarily the wrong choice by Brian Snitker. Strider, other than mistake sliders to Castellanos and Turner earlier, was on point for most of the night. But the Phillies never made it easy on him. Strider failed to record a 1-2-3 inning all night. His last pitch to Castellanos was his 96th. Many of the earlier ones came in high-stress situations. The Phillies failed to capitalize on numerous early opportunities. Creating them, though, perhaps had a lasting impact. It didn’t directly cause Strider to make those mistakes. But it certainly didn’t hurt.

It’s not that Snitker isn’t aggressive, either. He used two pinch-runners in the seventh to maximize the chances of potential lead-altering runs scoring. Travis d’Arnaud pinch-hit in that inning when the Phillies went to Kimbrel for what would have been Michael Harris II‘s spot. Then, Eddie Rosario and Grissom came off the bench to bat in the ninth. The Braves emptied the tank, too. They did so from a position of desperation. The Phillies did so with confidence and preparation. It may seem insignificant, but it matters.

“When we had the lead, and where we were in the parts of their lineup, I felt like that was the time to go to the Alvarados and the Kimbrels, and then we’ll figure it out at the end,” Thomson said. “So it was a little unorthodox. But we got it done.”

What a magical stretch it was for baseball in South Philadelphia. Again.

For all of the storylines and taunts that heightened the energy of this series, this was simply two high-level teams playing a postseason series against each other. The Phillies and Braves went toe-to-toe for the second straight October, and the Phillies prevailed again. You can pick whatever narrative you want to explain it — injured starting pitchers, rust from too much rest, getting inside the heads of opponents who couldn’t handle the Philadelphia crowd. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter, of course, is the outcome. That’s all that’s mattered to the Phillies for a while now. The eight postseason games the teams have played against each other have not featured any other-worldly gimmicks. There’s been luck, sure. Everybody needs some luck to win. What the Phillies have is a roster capable of beating one of baseball’s best in October two years running. That’s the floor. Until another saga kicks off on Monday, one can only imagine how high the ceiling can rise.

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