David Rodriguez brings the excitement of Major League Baseball to readers. With a deep appreciation for America’s pastime, he covers the latest MLB news, scores, and player achievements, keeping fans up to date with their favorite teams and players.
What is it about these Phillies? How do they keep dispatching teams with better records? How do they keep crushing the dreams of clubs that felt they, too, were built for the playoffs? How did they hold one of the best lineups in the history of Major League Baseball to a .186 batting average and three home runs in four games? How did they manage to pick up those last few outs, which can be agonizing this time of year, using their bullpen essentially in reverse to finish off the Braves?
“Winning teams find ways to win at all costs, right?” a shirtless Bryce Harper asked rhetorically in the Phillies’ beer-soaked clubhouse after his team advanced to a second straight NLCS. “That’s a really, really good team over there. I’ve got so much respect for the Atlanta Braves as an organization, the way they go about it, the way they play. They’ve got a great lineup one through nine.
“And we just beat a really, really good team.”
They beat the Braves with pitching. And with timely hitting. And with the longball. And with speed. And with defense. This isn’t the home-run-or-bust offense of seasons past. It’s not the top-heavy roster it was when guys like Harper and J.T. Realmuto first arrived. It’s a clubhouse with a mix of high-priced stars, young guys trying to establish themselves and a few veterans looking to change the course of their careers.
“I can’t speak for other teams, but our guys have come together really, really well,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “We’re not done. I’ve always felt personally that the best big-league clubs have a good core of veteran players who are really good players and in their prime, and some good young players coming up. I think they’re really important for the overall chemistry of the team.”
It’s a team built by an experienced front office executive in Dombrowski who has pushed so many of the right buttons, from installing Rob Thomson as manager last June to filling out the bullpen to picking up unheralded or overlooked players in need of a second chance.
“With all the statistics you have, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who has the talent to perform,” managing partner John Middleton said. “It’s really about the character of the person. You’ve got to know that the person is going to be hungry and they’re going to be hungry every single day. They’re going to be motivated to win. They’re going to be as motivated as Bryce has been to work hard to come back as fast from an injury as they can possibly do it. And they’re going to be as hungry 10 years from now as they are the first day. And that’s all about character.
“That’s why I think Dave has done a really good job and, frankly, (former GM Matt Klentak) did before him because Matt was around when we signed Bryce and then we signed Zack Wheeler, obviously traded for Realmuto. That’s how you kind of get a really good team.”
There’s no shortage of big personalities in the Phillies’ clubhouse. Guys like Brandon Marsh, Alec Bohm, Garrett Stubbs, and Bryson Stott clearly just love to party and set the tone for the clubhouse celebrations. They might not feel as comfortable being themselves if the leader and face of the franchise, Harper, wasn’t so laid back. Harper has an outsized aura but doesn’t walk around like the king of the castle. He doesn’t make the youngsters or newcomers nervous with his presence. He’s just a regular dude, as Jeff Hoffman put it.
“The big-money guys we have are just guys,” Hoffman said. “They’re team guys. They want to win. I can’t say enough about that group, those quote big-money guys. They’re all just guys. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s unbelievable.”
There’s something about the brashness the Phillies play with. They feel like the best team no matter where they are. It doesn’t matter that the Braves finished 14 games ahead of them for the second straight season. The Phils are confident in the talent level of their 26-man roster, their ability to make winning plays late in games, and to respond when punched in the face.
“I just think there are so many guys that have been in these situations, not just now but their whole lives,” Harper said. “We just vibe together, we vibe well.”
Only six games into their 2023 playoff run, the Phillies have produced so many interesting storylines. Harper and Wheeler are building potentially legendary postseason resumes. Nick Castellanos, with two home runs in Game 3 and two more in Game 4 of the NLDS, looks better at the plate than he has at any time the last two seasons. Both nights, his first homer tied the game the half-inning after the Braves took the lead. The Phillies did not trail for a full inning at any point in the four-game series, in large part because of their surging right fielder.
“What a stud,” Realmuto said. “He’s an absolute dude. Nobody in the dugout was surprised at his game today, he’s been looking so good at the plate. He’s just got that killer mentality in him.”
Trea Turner has been every bit of the difference-maker in October the Phillies expected, going 12-for-24 (.500) against the Marlins and Braves with four doubles, two homers, and four stolen bases. Aaron Nola found something late in the season, making a mechanical adjustment to keep his shoulders geared toward home plate. He’s taken off since, with four straight strong starts, including two in the playoffs. Seranthony Dominguez’ velocity and whiff rates were down in the middle of the summer. Not anymore. Ranger Suarez was shaky in his final two regular-season outings. Not in the playoffs. Craig Kimbrel blew his final two save chances in September. He’s answered with three scoreless innings in October.
The pitching staff, in particular, deserves major credit. Ronald Acuña Jr. will likely win NL MVP. He was a non-factor in the NLDS. Matt Olson led the majors with 54 homers and 139 RBI. He was a non-factor in the NLDS. Marcell Ozuna wrecked the Phillies in the regular season. He stranded a small village in the NLDS.
“Trust our stuff, that was really it,” Realmuto said. “Up and down our entire starting rotation and bullpen from top to bottom, we’ve got a lot of dudes who have good stuff who are able to mix locations, mix speeds, and keep hitters off balance. Facing a lineup that good over there, you have to be able to mix speeds and keep them guessing. We were able to do that most of the series.”
Thomson went to Dominguez, Alvarado, and Kimbrel in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, leaving lefties Gregory Soto and Matt Strahm to handle a right-handed section of the Braves’ lineup in a two-run game in the ninth. Soto put runners on the corners with nobody out. In came Strahm, who had two saves all year. Popup, flyout, strikeout. Game over.
“That’s why I came here,” Strahm told Dombrowski as the two hugged outside the clubhouse postgame.
And then there was Johan Rojas. The Phillies’ rookie center field dynamo ran down an Acuña line drive with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning that might have saved the Phillies’ season. With an average center fielder, maybe even with a slightly above-average center fielder, that’s a bases-clearing double.
“We knew he could play center field. I didn’t know he was going to catch that ball,” Dombrowski said. “I thought when it was hit that it was off the wall. But if it’s in the ballpark, he can catch it. He’s been phenomenal for us and is going to be a really good player. But the thing about him is that he always has shown that there’s no moment too big for him. He cherishes that. And he’s going to keep getting better and better all the time.”
The Phillies didn’t end the Braves’ year because of one, two, or three guys, they ended it because they were the better team. Next up are the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.
Games 1 and 2 are…