Any baseball team that survives the meat-grinder of a 162-game schedule and advances to the postseason needs heroes, especially one anchored down by the longest playoff drought in the National League, 11 years strong.
The Phillies needed players who were part of four straight September collapses to change their stripes and reverse the curse. They needed new players to step up and do what they were brought in to do — win meaningful games in a playoff race.
They needed heroes.
This week, the heroes arrived.
The Phils’ magical 3-0 win over the Astros in Houston last night, a new instant Phillies Classic, began with one of those new players, Kyle Schwarber, serving notice to every player on the bench that there would be no collapse this time. On the first pitch of the game, Schwarber swatted a home run so high and so far that he could afford to stand and admire it, and before anyone had a chance to breathe or doubt themselves, the Phillies were up 1-0.
The Phils’ all-time single-season home run leader for outfielders added No. 46 to his total in the 8th inning, providing insurance that, as it turns out, wasn’t needed. Schwarber is revisiting his June power surge, with two multi-homer games in the last four days. He was brought to Philadelphia in part because of past postseason heroics. The stage is not too big for him.
He’s been a hero before, and last night, he was again.
Aaron Nola, labeled by many as a good pitcher who simply “can’t win in big games,” retired the first 20 batters he faced last night. Not against the Nationals, mind you, but the best team in the American League. While past Septembers have haunted him, this year’s final month-plus was anything but disappointing. In six starts, Nola put up a 2.36 ERA, allowing one run or less in four of them and, in the other two, four earned runs in each.
Was he 1988 Orel Hershisher? No, but he was heroic nonetheless.
There was Bryson Stott, the rookie shortstop, overcoming an awful first two months and, until this past week, a rough September offensively and defensively, playing hero at the bottom of the lineup. His leadoff dinger in the 8th last night allowed the Phils to exhale a bit, part of a 3-for-3 night in which he fell a triple shy of the cycle. Heading into Monday, Stott had hit .368/.400/.474 over the last seven days, with some clutch hits last weekend in Washington as well.
Stott wasn’t the only member of the Phillies Day Care to play hero in the season’s final week. Oft-criticized Matt Vierling had a big weekend against the Nationals and was hitting .333/.385/.833 with a homer and 3 RBIs in his last six games. Brandon Marsh slugged .455 with a homer and 3 runs scored over that same stretch and is hitting .298 since coming to the Phils at the trade deadline.
Jean Segura has played 1,326 games in an 11-year career without reaching the postseason. That ended last night, and he helped by hitting .375/.400/.375 with 5 runs scored over the last week.
Zack Wheeler has made two starts since returning from the injured list and has given up one earned run on 7 hits with 12 strikeouts and one walk. He’ll start Game 1 of the NLWCS on Friday. Ranger Suarez has been a rock since the All Star break, with a 2.50 ERA over his last 68.1 innings and an opponents’ average allowed of just .219.
Jose Alvarado was sent down to AAA on May 27 with a 7.62 ERA. The guy with the most electric stuff on the team was simply too unreliable to pitch at the big league level. Since his return on June 12, nearly four months ago, he has been scored upon in just four of his 42 appearances and since the start of August, had an ERA of 0.46 heading into last night. In the clincher, he wriggled out of a 1st and 2nd, two-out jam in the 7th and recorded four monster outs to get the team to the 9th.
Jose Alvarado, the most reliable arm in the bullpen. Didn’t see that one coming.
And how about Zach Eflin? The right-hander has made 115 starts for the Phillies since his big league debut in 2016, but his troublesome knees knocked him out of the starting rotation again this year, and it seemed unlikely he would return in any capacity. But through intestinal fortitude and a desire to rejoin his teammates for the stretch run, Eflin battled back and has emerged as the second-most dependable reliever Rob Thomson has.
Want the proof? Rather than turn to the erratic David Robertson or Seranthony Dominguez for the final three outs last night, Thomson turned to a pitcher that had never recorded a save in his minor or Major League career. Thomson did not do this for nostalgia’s sake, nor for narrative. He did it because he believed Eflin could get the job done better than anyone else, and was proven correct when he delivered a stress-free, 1-2-3 inning.
An inning that ended 11 years and, more acutely, three weeks of angst.
Others had their moments too, over the last few days. J.T. Realmuto provided production with his legs and defense, with the occasional bomb to right field. Bryce Harper was mostly an afterthought, but also had some nice moments. Rhys Hoskins had a couple games where he emerged, and how do you not feel great for him?
It wasn’t pretty. For all intents and purposes, the Phillies did not play well in September yet again, and one couldn’t be blamed for bailing on this team after their sweep at the hands of the Cubs. The difference between 2022 and previous September struggles were the three months that preceded it, three months in which they played so well that it afforded them the room they needed to overcome their September struggles this time around.
It gave them time to find the heroes they would need over this past week to bring Phillies fans something they haven’t seen since 2011.
The Phils cannot afford to put the capes away. They will begin their ‘22 playoff journey either in St. Louis or New York in four days and the moments will require more heroes.
Who will they be?