Last night sucked.
There’s just no other way to put it. The Phillies became only the second team in World Series history to be no-hit by an opposing team. You can’t sugar coat that. They couldn’t hit Cristian Javier last night if you gave them five strikes and a boat oar, a jarring development just 24 hours after tying a World Series record with five home runs in Game 3. Now, they suddenly find themselves tied 2-2 in this best-of-seven Fall Classic, the clear underdogs, once again, to win it all.
After bludgeoning Lance McCullers Jr. 7-0 in Game 3, one could be forgiven if the Phillies and their fans felt they were invincible within the confines of Citizens Bank Park. They were 6-0 at home in the postseason, averaging seven runs per game, walloping 17 dingers in those six games. Visions of dancing on the CBP turf after wins in Games 4 and 5 were palpable, so much so, that it seemed a fait accompli.
Now, the series will certainly shift to Houston after tonight’s Game 5 and, on paper, the Astros are the clear favorites to win the World Series.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.
There are a multitude of reasons why the Phils can still pull this off.
Justin Verlander May Be Out Of Gas, Too
It seems pretty clear both Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler are running on fumes at this point. For the third straight game, Nola’s stuff was not sharp and he was not fooling anyone. The dude has thrown 227 innings and it’s November 3rd. It’s not an excuse, just a reason. However, Houston’s ace may be running on fumes, too.
Verlander is coming off Tommy John surgery and did not pitch at all last year. In 2020, he pitched six innings. In the ‘22 regular season, Verlander piled up 175 innings in his first season back, and has added an additional 15 here in the playoffs. That’s 190 innings for a guy who pitched six innings combined in 2020-21. He was flat out not good in Game 1, allowing five runs on six hits with five strikeouts and two walks, giving up a 5-0 deficit in the process.
In three postseason starts this year, Verlander has given up 12 runs, 19 hits and 4 walks in those 15 innings. It sounds crazy to say about the likely American League Cy Young Award winner who put up a league best 1.75 ERA and 0.829 WHIP in the regular season, but the Phils may be fortunate he’s getting the ball in Game 5 tonight.
Oh, and Verlander has historically stunk in the Series, with a 6.07 ERA in eight World Series games.
The Synderpen Has Been Very Good
The idea of a bullpen game against Houston’s No. 1 starter understandably strikes fear into the heart of man, but the Phillies’ ‘pen has been outstanding so far here in the World Series.
In four games, Phils’ relievers have a 1.02 ERA. They’ve pitched 17.2 innings and struck out 20 while walking five and giving up 10 hits. No, they haven’t matched Houston’s 0.63 bullpen ERA, but their 0.85 WHIP is right there with the Astros’ 0.84, and Houston’s hitters are batting just .164 against them in the Fall Classic. Phils’ relievers are throwing strikes and, outside of Jose Alvarado’s difficulties in Game 4, have been their best pitchers thus far.
Given the fatigue we appear to be seeing from Nola and Wheeler, is a bullpen game really the worst option?
And how about Syndergaard? He’s pitched only 5.1 innings in the postseason, so it’s an extremely small sample size, but he’s been solid when called upon. In his NLDS start in Game 2 against Atlanta, he went three innings and allowed just one run on one hit and struck out three in an 8-3 win. He’s also thrown two relief appearances, one against Atlanta and one in Game 4 of the NLCS and allowed two hits and no runs in 2.1 innings.
This is certainly a mismatch on paper, but in reality, it could be just fine.
Houston’s Home World Series Record
Yes, the Astros have recaptured home field advantage in the World Series. Games 6 and 7 will be played there. That stinks.
Here’s the good news — they’re not a very good home World Series team.
Minute Maid Park does not strike fear into the hearts of the Phillies. After stealing Game 1, the Phils know they can win there, and since the 2017 World Series, Houston has gone 4-8 in their last 12 home Fall Classic Games. They lost Games 6 and 7 at home to the Nationals in 2019, and lost Game 6 there to the Braves last year.
NL East teams have a habit of clinching World Series titles on their field. The Phillies can do it, too.
Familiarity with Framber Valdez
Maybe I’m reaching for straws, but the Phillies have now seen Framber Valdez, the likely Game 6 starter, twice in the last month.
In Game 162, a game the Phillies did not care about, he struck out 10 in five innings of shutout ball, allowing just two hits. In Game 2 of the World Series, he went 6.1 innings and allowed just one run on four hits and three walks with nine strikeouts. No doubt, he’s had their number.
But now the Phils get to see him for the second time in five days. There will be no surprises. Hitting coach Kevin Long can help his hitters fine tune their approach and maybe try something different. Maybe it won’t have any effect and Valdez will slice through them like soft butter once again, but it’s a reason to be hopeful.
The Phillies Get Up Off the Deck
Incredibly, the Phillies have not lost two consecutive games for more than a month. Every time they’ve been hit in the mouth, they’ve responded the very next night. Rob Thomson mentioned that very thing to the players after last night’s no-hitter, reminding them of their 4-1 win over the Mets back in April the day after New York threw a combined no-no against them.
Yes, this was on the national stage. It was a historic embarrassment, but this team has shown an ability to flush the last game and get ready for the next one repeatedly in October.
They were down 2-0 in Game 1 of the NLWCS against St. Louis and scored six in the 9th to win. After a Game 2 loss to Atlanta in the NLDS, they responded with the Rhys Hoskins bat-slam victory in Game 3. After the Game 2 loss in San Diego, the Phils eked out a grueling 4-2 win in Game 3. They fell behind 4-0 in Game 4 of the NLCS before responding with a rousing 10-6 win. They fell behind 5-0 in Game 1 against Verlander and pulled off the miracle. After losing in Game 2 to Houston, the Phils smoked Lance McCullers, Jr. in a 7-0 whitewashing.
Maybe the magic has run out, and maybe the Astros are simply too overwhelming to expect it to keep happening, but there is a grit and determination with this group that is impossible to quantify.
Citizens Bank Park Will Be Insane For Game 5
The Phils were no-hit in Game 4 at home, but that doesn’t mean Citizens Bank Park still isn’t the best home field advantage in professional sports right now. They’re 22-10 all-time there. The crowd tonight will once again be electric, and you know Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and the gang will be locked in.
They key will be hitting fastballs. Last night, and all series long, really, Astros pitchers have been throwing fastballs by Phils’ hitters. Look for the Phillies to be aggressive against fastballs early in the count to counteract Houston’s pitching plans, and for Bedlam at the Bank to return.
Empty the Tank, Zack Wheeler
There’s no doubt Wheeler’s performance in Game 2 was unsettling, and the desire for the Phils’ pitching coaches to give him an extra two days of rest ahead of his Game 6 start is worrisome. Whether he’s battling his elbow, his knee, or simple fatigue, the Phillies need their ace to find another gear just one more time this season.
There is nothing else after Game 6 for Wheeler. This is it. Because the team has pitched so deeply into November, and because Wheeler will likely need some kind of medical attention this off-season to fix what’s ailing him, it’s likely his off-season preparations will be pushed back to the point he won’t start 2023 on time.
So be it. Lean into it. Empty the tank. See what happens, because if the Phils are going to win this Fall Classic, they must get at least one good start from one of their two aces.
The Freedom of Being the Underdog
Make no mistake, the 106-win Astros are once again the clear favorites to win it all. That’s what Game 4 meant. The good news is the Phillies relish the role of underdogs.
Yes, taking a 2-1 series lead raised everyone’s expectations. Everyone was thinking about a parade, but there’s a reason Houston finished with 19 more wins than the Phils in the regular season. They’re really, really good.
The weight of expectations are now once again on the shoulders of Houston. Sure, they are much happier in that role than with the prospect of being down 3-1, but this series is still 2-2. The two teams have played each other dead even thus far. Through four games, each team has scored 15 runs off each other.
Sure, no one outside Philadelphia is picking the Phillies to come out on top in this Fall Classic, but that’s OK. Playing as the underdog can be freeing, and it’s worked for the Phils thus far.
In a series in which there has been absolutely no momentum carry-over from one game to the next, no one knows what the next 2-3 games have in store.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Phillies can still finish the job.