It was a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday, and it sent the Philadelphia Phillies to 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres and a place in the World Series, the first of this franchise since 2009. The Houston Astros or New York Yankees are waiting.
The blast was Harper’s fifth of the postseason. At this point, he is as close to an approximate 1928 Babe Ruth or 1977 Reggie Jackson as baseball has seen in recent Octobers. He is batting .419 with a 1.351 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He is the center of the universe of the Phillies, his gravity like that of a thousand suns.
When lefty Ranger Suárez retired Padres catcher Austin Nola on a fly ball to right to end the top of the ninth — a hairy half inning in which righty David Robertson was pulled after issuing back-to-back one-out walks — the Phillies. threw his gloves in the air and converged on the center of the diamond to summon a victory group that was sure to rage deep into the night.
“We have four more!” Harper shouted to a raucous crowd from the stage set up beyond second base, where he was presented with the NLCS MVP trophy. He was referring to the number of wins remaining to secure the championship. “We will bring this [expletive] home boys!”
In the Phillies’ victory clubhouse, the first bottles of champagne were directed at the uncovered face of manager Rob Thomson, who had taken over. for the fired Joe Girardi in early June, when the team had a 22-29 record, and led them to a 65-46 record the rest of the way.
“It’s special to me personally,” said Thomson, a rookie major league manager but a veteran of 37 seasons in professional baseball. “But there are so many guys in this club that have never even been in the playoffs [before this year]. … I’m probably happier for them than anyone else.”
Those 87 regular season wins were good enough for the Phillies to sneak into the postseason as the sixth seed — an award that didn’t even exist until this year’s playoff expansion. But they turned into a pickup in the postseason, beating three teams – the St. Louis Cardinals, the Atlanta Braves and now the Padres – who have passed them collectively by 22 games in the regular season standings. In three rounds, they are 9-2, including 5-0 at home.
“You could see us grow together, always with the feeling that if we went in … we would have a chance to contend,” said President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, who is seeking a third World Series title to go with those. he won with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018. “Our stars have risen.”
The Phillies held a slim lead for much of the game, built on Rhys Hoskins’ two-run homer in the third and six-plus innings off ace Zack Wheeler. But carrying that lead home would prove a daunting task, given the resilience of the priests and the deteriorating elements.
Much of the game was played in light rain and a steady wind, covering the downtown skyline in the distance in an eerie blanket of haze. Just beyond center, between the Stars and Stripes and a giant LED Liberty Bell that lights up after Phillies home runs and wins, were a pair of red flags waving in the gale-force wind – representing the only World Series titles in franchise history, from 1980 and 2008.
But the rain returned and the field grew muddy in the top of the seventh, when the Padres scored a pair of runs to grab a 3-2 lead. The go-ahead run scored on the third wild pitch of the inning by Phillies reliever Seranthony Domínguez – matching the number of wild pitches he threw in the entire regular season, spanning 51 innings.
The tying run, charged to Wheeler, scored on an RBI by Padres designated hitter Josh Bell, who laced a double to Domínguez’s right. Pinch runner José Azocar took third and then home on second and third on Domínguez’s wild pitches. Suddenly, the priests led by a run.
Major League Baseball took a gamble by even trying to play Sunday, with the forecast calling for light rain and a narrow window in which to jam a game. As the postseason schedule was condensed — a holdover from the owners’ lockout that delayed the start of the season — the traditional travel day between Games 5 and 6 of the championship series was eliminated. Had the Padres won Sunday, the teams would have reconvened in San Diego on Monday night. Heavy rain Sunday would have thrown the rest of the postseason schedule into chaos.
In a way, Harper’s home run — on a 99-mph sinker by the Padres’ Robert Suarez — took MLB off the hook for what was sure to be a much-scrutinized decision to play through the stiffer rain in the seventh inning.
When Harper stepped to the plate, with JT Realmuto on first base after a single, a strange calm descended on Citizens Bank Park, as if the outcome was predetermined. The Padres may have contributed to that sense by not bringing in Josh Hader, arguably the most unhittable reliever in the game, and instead sticking with Suarez, who was in his second inning of work.
“At that moment,” manager Bob Melvin said, “I had faith in Suarez.”
Harper, too, reacted like someone who expected to do exactly what he did. He celebrated other big hits with wild gestures and howls, as he did after his second RBI double in Game 4 on Saturday night. Here, he looked into his dugout, pointed to the word scrawled across his chest – Phillies – and began his jog.
“No matter who was on the mound, No. 3 is made for that kind of moment,” Hoskins said. “And he did it again. None of us were surprised.”
Spring was miserable for the Phillies, who went two months without seeing the sunny side of .500 and got their manager fired. Summer began with a roar and ended with a fizzle, the Phillies providing little evidence that they could survive the postseason gauntlet that awaited.
But autumn? Fall has been incredible for these Phillies. And thanks in large part to Harper’s blazing bat, it’s going to stretch a little longer than anyone here could have imagined just a few weeks ago.