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 a 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres and a place in the World Series, the first for this franchise since 2009. The Houston Astros or the New York Yankees await you.
The outburst was Harper’s fifth in the playoffs. At this point, he’s as close to an approximation of 1928’s Babe Ruth or 1977’s Reggie Jackson as baseball has seen him in recent Octobers. He’s hitting .419 with 1.351 on-base plus slugging percentage. He is the center of the Phillies universe, his gravity like that of a thousand suns.
When left-hander Ranger Suárez pulled out Padres receiver Austin Nola on a flyball right to complete the start of the ninth – a hairy half inning in which right-hander David Robertson was retired after making consecutive walks – the Phillies took threw their gloves in the air and converged in the center of the diamond to summon a victory party certain to rage late into the night.
“We have four more!” Harper shouted to a raucous crowd from the stage erected beyond second base, where he received the NLCS MVP trophy. He was referring to the number of wins remaining to secure the championship. “We will bring this [expletive] home, guys!
In the victorious Phillies clubhouse, the first bottles of champagne were directed at the glassesless face of manager Rob Thomson, who took over for the fired Joe Girardi in early June, when the team was 22-29, and led them to a 65-46 record the rest of the way.
“It’s special for me personally,” said Thomson, a rookie major league manager but a veteran of 37 seasons in professional baseball. “But there are so many guys at this club who had never even been in the playoffs [before this year]. …I’m probably happier for them than for anyone else.
Those 87 regular-season wins were good enough for the Phillies to sneak into the playoffs as the sixth seed — an award that didn’t even exist before this year’s playoff expansion. But they turned into a playoff juggernaut, beating three teams — the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and now the Padres — who collectively edged them 22 games in the regular season standings. In three sets, they are 9-2, including 5-0 at home.
“You could see us growing together, always with the feeling that if we came in … we would have a fighting chance,” said president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who is seeking a third World Series title. to go along with those he won with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018. “Our stars have intensified.”
The Phillies held a slim lead for much of the game, built on Rhys Hoskins’ two-run homer in third and more than six outstanding innings from ace Zack Wheeler. But bringing that track home would prove to be a daunting task, due to the resilience of the Padres and deteriorating elements.
Much of the match was played in light rain and steady wind, masking the downtown skyline in the distance in a chilling blanket of mist. Beyond the immediate center, between the Stars and Stripes and a giant Liberty Bell LED that lights up after Phillies home runs and wins, were a pair of red flags flapping in the fierce wind – representing the only titles of the World Series in franchise history, from 1980 and 2008.
But the rain resumed and the field turned muddy in the top of the seventh, when the Padres scored two runs to take a 3-2 lead. Go-ahead 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 from Padres designated hitter Josh Bell, who netted a brace to the right of Domínguez. Pinch runner José Azocar took third, then home on second and third from Domínguez’s wild pitches. Suddenly, the Padres led by a run.
Major League Baseball took a gamble even trying to play Sunday, with the forecast calling for light rain and a narrow window in which to cram a game. Because the playoff schedule has been condensed — fallout from the owners’ lockout, which delayed the start of the season — the traditional travel day between Games 5 and 6 of the Championship Series has been wiped out. If the Padres had won on Sunday, the teams would have met in San Diego on Monday night. A rainy Sunday would have thrown the rest of the playoff schedule into chaos.
In a sense, Harper’s homer — on a 99-mph lead from Robert Suarez of the Padres — clinched MLB for what was certainly a much-scrutinized decision to play in the steeper seventh-inning rain.
When Harper headed for home plate, with JT Realmuto on first base after a single, an eerie calm descended on Citizens Bank Park, as if the outcome was foreordained. The Padres may have contributed to that sentiment by not bringing in Josh Hader, arguably the most unbeatable reliever in the game, and instead sticking with Suarez, who was in his second inning of work.
“At that point,” 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 yells, 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 started his jog.
“No matter who was on the mound, No. 3 is made for this type of moment,” Hoskins said. “And he did it again. None of us were surprised.
It was a miserable spring for the Phillies, who went two months without seeing the .500 sunny side and had their manager fired. The summer started with a roar and ended with a fizzle, with the Phillies providing little evidence that they could survive the playoff gauntlet that awaited them.
But autumn? Fall has been amazing for these Phillies. And thanks in large part to Harper’s scorching bat, it will last a little longer than anyone here could have imagined just a few weeks ago.