Philadelphia Phillies shift gears in playoffs, and then stall

Sep 29, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) walks to the dugout before their game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 29, 2021; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Aaron Nola (27) walks to the dugout before their game against the Atlanta Braves at Truist Park. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

In a week when Philadelphia fans were celebrating, unusually, the joys of being a fan in their city, there was cause to consider … um … what-the-heck their finally successful MLB team, the Phillies, was doing.

(The Eagles were coming on Sunday night. Give it a rest.)

The third-place Phillies had shocked some, for sure, by running into the new-format playoffs 3-1, and everybody sensible should have begun worrying if they were a threat to the almighty Dodgers, Yankees, or Astros.

How were the allegedly homer-happy Phillies navigating their first playoff games in over a decade?

Isolating recent important Phillies games might give people ample reason to consider the threat suggested, and such analysis for true fans of the Fightin’s could also be useful.

As suggested, and usual, most Phils fans were asking, “What are they doing?”

Let’s go back.

The anxiety about the Phillies expenditures for their team suddenly seemed to become less worrisome when their longest-tenured starter shut down the AL Central’s Astros, 3-0, on October 3.

Oh, as usual, some relievers were involved, but hey, it’s the 21st century.

Fittingly, though, Aaron Nola’s win put the Phillies into the playoffs. And as they say down at Murphy’s Bar, it was about damned time. The stoic LSU product had almost produced a guarantee of vital postseason baseball in South Philly for the first time in 11 years.

More specifically, the Phillies had won not only with a pitcher who had put up 6.2 perfect innings, but also won with the apparent design of the team — home runs. Kyle Schwarber, the NL home run champion, hit two, and the guy with the opportunity to lose his job at shortstop next spring, Bryson Stott, hit the other one.

After losing to two meaningless games to Houston then, the Phillies then faced the NL Central Champion Cardinals, an annoyance since October of 2011, in a Wild Card three-game series.

And here’s where isolating the important games continues in focus. Built-for-power Philadelphia had prepared no one for what was about to happen. In their first game on October 7, with the MVP-laden Redbirds, the Phillies exploded for six runs in the ninth inning to steal a game, 6-3. No one for Philadelphia homered, and the margin of victory was provided on RBI singles, a fielder’s choice, and a sacrifice fly by Jean Segura, Stott, Brandon Marsh, and Schwarber.

That would seem to be small ball.

Next, the Phillies eliminated St. Louis the following day behind Nola again, 2-0, on a homer by Bryce Harper, a sac fly by Schwarber, and suddenly they would face the team that had finished in first in their division. But the Phillies had gotten there by shifting gears a bit from ready-to-bomb to produce-on-opportunity.

Was it, in fact, throwback baseball? Put the ball in play, advance the runner, and so forth?

The first game in Atlanta featured a Phils pitcher in his first season as a designated starter, Ranger Suarez, who had been a tricky success all year (10-7, 3.65 ERA). He didn’t last long, but had two innings when he stranded three runners on base.

This is called battling and is appreciated by Philadelphia fans. Suarez is not an “ace” but, dammit, he did not give up.

Philadelphia survived, 7-6, using seven pitchers, including a former starting pitcher, Zach Eflin, who gave up a three-run homer very late that gave everybody reason to worry. Oh, and Nick Castellanos, an insanely expensive free agent, finally produced. Very well, honestly.

The Fightin’s, who had seemingly forgot how to homer in the Age of the Launch Angle, then proceed to produce nowhere near enough small balls to win on October 12, falling to a great young pitcher, Kyle Wright, 3-0. Harper came close to a homer to left-center twice, I believe, and seems to be swinging well. It’s almost as though his thumb hadn’t been recently broken.

So, what will happen next? The most anticipated home game in Philadelphia for quite a while, on Friday, will feature Aaron Nola for the Phillies. It really doesn’t matter who’s pitching for the hated Braves.

dark. Next. Bryce Harper wants one thing from Yadier Molina

The only question for the Philadelphia Phillies is, will they try to small ball their way to a lead in the NLDS, or try to do it with the long ball. Should that be a mix-and-match?