Phillies power past Marlins, will face Braves in NLDS

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PHILADELPHIA — As it turns out, the secret to building an ideal postseason baseball team, the kind that can win enough for six mind-numbing months and then flip a switch in the seventh, was never in the numbers. It never sat hidden in data, waiting for the right formula to spit it out.

No, the secret to building that rare baseball machine lies somewhere no self-respecting baseball genius would allow himself or herself to look. The secret to magical Octobers is — well, maybe it’s best to let Bryce Harper explain it.

“It’s the vibes,” he said, goggles pushed back and socks soaked in beer, as a pounding Cher anthem blasted behind him in the Philadelphia Phillies’ smoky clubhouse Wednesday night. “That’s it. We have such good vibes with the fans and our city. It’s a blast. We all love doing this.”

Traditionalists might roll their eyes. “Vibes” is not a baseball term, not supposed to be as predictive as wRC+ or WAR or any of the numbers in vogue these days. But after a rollicking run to the World Series in 2022 and two gleefully rowdy wins over the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park in the past two days, the evidence is as incomplete as it is indisputable: The Phillies are uniquely suited for October not because of their lineup or rotation, their bullpen or backroom strategizing. They are uniquely suited for October not only because they are talented but because they do not just endure the emotions October stirs. They use those emotions to come alive.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything,” Manager Rob Thomson said. “But I think … we’re built for series-type baseball.”

Wednesday’s 7-1 win in the clinching Game 2 looked and felt more like a collective celebration, like two and a half hours of practiced choreography between a team and a fan base determined to soak up every second. Something about postseason crowds at Citizens Bank Park, especially the ones that have serenaded this iteration of the Phillies, drowns out regular season worries, one by one, until they hardly matter at all.

“I wouldn’t want to play anywhere else,” said Bryson Stott, whose sixth-inning grand slam buried the Marlins and got the crowd singing his walk-up song, “A-O-K” by Tai Verdes. “It’s phenomenal time every time we take the field here in the postseason.”

What to know about the 2023 MLB postseason

For example, one of the strains of anxious dialogue around this team all year surrounded the leadoff spot in the batting order. Thomson put slugger Kyle Schwarber there, then left him when he struggled, experimenting here and there as pundits squirmed about the unorthodox aesthetics of having a player in that spot who struck out nearly 30 percent of the time and hit .197 in the regular season.

But he left him there in part because Schwarber gets on base and in part because Schwarber has always had a knack for setting the tone. No one threatens the other team with an immediate deficit quite like the burly designated hitter. And Wednesday night, his RBI double in the third inning gave the Phillies a lead they never gave back.

Schwarber is the perfect example of why the Phillies often seem greater than the sum of their parts. He’s a veteran who is just as excited to participate in uncouth celebrations on the dugout railing as anyone. In fact, no one on the Phillies, from stoic J.T. Realmuto and Zack Wheeler to rookie Johan Rojas, from veteran Nick Castellanos to new guy Trea Turner, seems too cool for all the fun. They fire up the same playlist as they pop champagne with each new milestone, tweaked from last year to this one only to account for requests from new faces. They have as many celebratory rituals as they do dogged preparatory routines.

When Castellanos flashed a finger in the dugout’s direction after a double in Game 1, it was Schwarber who headed toward an iPad to review the video. Stodgier veterans would hate to admit they did anything that wasn’t about baseball in a game so important, but Schwarber was not sheepish. He needed to see which finger Castellanos used, what new unplanned celebration had just been introduced. The Phillies win and they celebrate — and they treasure both parts, never too serious about one to lose track of the other.

Talent helps, of course, and the Phillies are good in part because they have plenty of that, too. Some wondered whether the Marlins’ lefty-heavy pitching staff might help them neutralize Schwarber, Harper and other lefty sluggers enough to pull an upset. But the Phillies have right-handed power, too. Realmuto hit a 404-foot homer in the fourth inning. Turner’s single drove home Schwarber in the third.

Pitching is important, too. The Phillies didn’t have the most heralded rotation in October last year, nor do they this year. What they have are two ace-caliber starters who have yet to let them down. Wheeler was dominant Tuesday. Aaron Nola had his best start in weeks Wednesday, allowing three hits and a walk over seven scoreless innings.

Nola was here during the lean times, the ace of the downtrodden Phillies of the late 2010s, before the city became a destination for big stars and the team transformed into a joyful bunch. He is a reminder that none of this was preordained, that what has coalesced in this clubhouse is as rare as it is magical — and that it is temporary. Every start Nola makes now might be his last as a Phillie. The 30-year-old will be a free agent after the season — probably a coveted one, given his track record.

But the backbone of the Phillies’ rotation seemed to waver when he failed to finish five innings in each of his first three September starts. Nola made a few mechanical tweaks and finished with back-to-back starts of six-plus innings and two or fewer runs. He made the adjustment — just in time for the schedule to throw him a longer-than-usual layoff ahead of his biggest start of the season. He threw seven scoreless innings Wednesday. In other words, he was the Phillies’ ace again, just in time to guarantee he will have that title for at least one more start.

An unlikely display of ‘brotherly love’ sparked Trea Turner’s turnaround

“I tried to soak it in as best as possible. It’s just cool to pitch in the postseason over here,” he said. “… You don’t get it every other place like you do here. It’s already a packed house when I go out there to go warm up in the bullpen. They kind of bring the energy, and they bring it out in us a little more.”

October brings something out of these Phillies, something that other teams wait and pray will hit them at the right moment, even as the Phillies seem able to count on it. They do not need to catch lightning in a bottle. They turn up the speakers, turn on the smoke and create it on demand.

They will not be studied for their baseball genius, not like some other winning franchises of this era, whose executives are praised for maneuvering that gets them to October only to admit they cross their fingers when they arrive. The mighty Atlanta Braves, who blasted past the Phillies for the NL East title, are one such juggernaut, and the Phillies are not favored to beat them for the second time in as many years in the division series that starts Saturday.

But the Phillies do not have to worry whether their vibes can withstand a few setbacks against the Braves. The big question, loath as statheads might be to admit it, is whether the Braves can withstand the vibes.

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