The Morning Call (Sunday)

No longer under radar

Phillies different sort of NLDS champion this year. Suddenly, they’re World Series favorites

- By David Murphy

PHILADELPH­IA — It was there, right there, and everybody sensed it. You could feel the energy exploding out of Nick Castellano­s’ bat, out of Ranger Suárez’s fastball, out of whichever arm Rob Thomson happened to be using as he made his next summons to a bullpen that was living on a prayer.

Johan Rojas? Yeah, he sensed it. Saw it. Chased it down in the left-center alley like it was something he wasn’t about to let out of his grasp. Spencer Strider, he felt it. You can thank an insane, throbbing crowd of 45,000-plus for doing its job on that front. Bryce Harper? Man, you hope that he felt it, that it really did bring to him some healing power when he emerged from the dugout to take his place at first after initially entering it grasping his right arm in pain.

It was there, right there.

Another unceremoni­ous dispatchin­g of their longtime division rival? Another National League Championsh­ip Series? Sure. They got both of those things with their heart-palpitatin­g 3-1 win in a Game 4 clincher on Thursday night.

They also got themselves a heck of a good chance at a whole lot more.

As Matt Strahm’s decisive strike three cut across the plate Vaughn Grissom swung and J.T. Realmuto pumped his fist, the Phillies spilled from the dugout with an ecstatic, powder-blue realizatio­n that destiny was in front of them like never before.

“I think that the four teams that are left right now are good teams that are playing really well,” Phillies manager partner John Middleton said amidst the postgame ruckus. “And we are one of those four teams. We can match up with people. But we have to play well.”

It is different this year. It may not turn out any differentl­y. But the team? The situation? The road to the organizati­on’s first World Series title in 15 years? Oh, it’s different.

By the wee small hours of Friday morning, as the party moved from Citizens Bank Park to Xfinity Live!, the Phillies were virtual co-favorites with the Astros to win this year’s title. FanDuel’s sportsbook had the Phillies at +195, the Astros at +180. For all you non-degenerate­s out there, that equates to 1.95to-1 and 1.80-to-1.

The odds were easily understood if you happened to be on site on Thursday night. At this point, any team that enters Citizens Bank Park would be at a significan­t disadvanta­ge. Once the Diamondbac­ks completed their sweep of the Dodgers earlier this week, the Phillies simply needed to finish off the Braves to find themselves with home-field advantage in the NLCS. They would also have it in the event of a World Series rematch with the Astros, who would also bring with them a markedly inferior pitching staff to the one that dominated last year’s proceeding­s.

The Phillies? They are better. Much better. They are deeper. They are more experience­d, more hardened, more heady, more one

with the crowd that has been energizing things for an entire calendar year. They are far more capable of surviving a tightrope walk like the one they had to perform throughout a fast-paced, back-and-forth clincher that was postseason baseball at his finest.

Trea Turner wasn’t here last year. But he was here Thursday night, hitting a solo home run in the fifth to give the Phillies a 2-1 lead, bringing down the house that helped build him back up.

Rojas wasn’t here last year.

But he sure as heck was here Thursday night, especially in the seventh inning, when he made an all-time game-saver of a defensive play with two outs and the bases loaded, chasing down a potential go-ahead double by Ronald Acuna Jr. and preserving a 3-1 lead.

“I just knew I had to make that catch,” Rojas said.

Castellano­s was here last year, but he was never present in a way like he was this series. He followed a two-homer outing in Game 3 with a game-tying solo shot in the fourth and another in the sixth to give them a potentiall­y crucial insurance run.

The Phillies didn’t end up needing it, although it didn’t feel that way.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from, how many years you have, how many years you don’t have, we do not care,” Harper said as he stood in the middle of a beer-soaked clubhouse late Thursday night. “You could have one day in the big leagues. We need you to help us win. That’s how we are as a team. We’re a family. Any time you put the Phillies on your chest, you’re part of this family. We rely on everyone in this clubhouse, one through 25, everyone in that staff room over there. We couldn’t do it without every single individual in here.”


The road awaits like never before. A team that entered the postseason as a wild card and the NLDS as a road underdog is suddenly the heavy favorite to represent the National League in a World Series where they’d have as good a chance as either of their two potential opponents. The Braves are gone, and so are the Dodgers. The only things standing between the Phillies and another swing at the piñata are the Diamondbac­ks and a best-of-seven NLCS played against the backdrop of the greatest home-field advantage in the majors — and maybe all of sports.

An hour after the final out, Strahm was still struggling to find words to capture the energy he felt when he delivered his series-clinching pitch and watched Vaughn Grissom swing and miss. The crowd was so loud that he could not hear the pitch call coming over his earpiece, forcing J.T. Realmuto to relay the sign the old-fashioned way.

“I heard the guys talking all year about how they can’t hear the pitch call in the playoffs,” said Strahm, who recorded the final three outs with two runners on base after a high-wire act that

Jose Alvarado, Craig Kimbrel and Gregory Soto somehow survived. “I was thinking to myself, ‘No way.’ Tonight, when I got two strikes on Grissom, I had no idea what

J.T. called. I couldn’t hear it. So we went to fingers quick and he gave me the sign.”

It worked, as it usually does for this team.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve faced my brother in the front yard,” Strahm said. “Three-two count, bases loaded, World Series. That’s what every kid is dreaming of.”

It ain’t the World Series yet. But it’s close. It’s real. The Phillies are no longer underdogs, survivors, darlings of the moment. They are in the driver’s seat, and the whole sport has to feel it.

The Diamondbac­ks are no slouch. In Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly, they have a couple of top-of-the-rotation starters who are every bit as capable as Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola. Will they look that way in the madhouse that awaits them?

Game 1 of the NLCS uncorks itself on Monday.

It’s there. Right there.

All that’s left now is to take it.

 ?? PHILADELPH­IA INQUIRER JOSE F. MORENO/ ?? The Phillies celebrate another trip to the NLCS in the clubhouse after beating the Braves, 3-1, Thursday night to win the NLDS.
PHILADELPH­IA INQUIRER JOSE F. MORENO/ The Phillies celebrate another trip to the NLCS in the clubhouse after beating the Braves, 3-1, Thursday night to win the NLDS.

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