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2022 World Series Preview: Phillies vs. Astros

Football undoubtedly dominates the headlines of countless sports sections across North America this time of year. But this year’s Major League Baseball postseason has been more than worth paying attention to. An expanded field has produced plenty of epic games, unbelievable upsets and thrilling finishes.

Most importantly, it has dwindled down a field of 12 down to just two. The final four to seven games this season will decide which of the two teams is remembered forever. Both are looking to silence two very different groups of haters. One is hoping to put some agonizing close calls in recent postseason runs to bed. The other is hoping to make up for a decade devoid of them.

The Houston Astros have been a machine. The Philadelphia Phillies have been magical. 42 years after these teams played in one of the most epic series in postseason history, a second comes into the focus with greatness and the Commissioner’s Trophy at stake.

Philadelphia Phillies: 87-75, No. 3 NL East, 3rd NL Wild Card

NL Wild Card Series: Beat STL 2-0, NLDS: Beat ATL 3-1, NLCS: Beat SD 4-1

It has been 116 years since the Fall Classic featured as large of a disparity in regular season records between the two participants. Maybe it would not feel right if such a massive underdog role belonged to a team from anywhere else other than Philadelphia, a city that has a history of embracing them. The team was 21-29 through its first 50 games, 22nd in the league. Three days later, they fired their manager and everything’s changed since then.

Almost everyone has thrived under the relaxed, steady hand of Rob Thomson. He helped lead the Phillies to snap the National League’s longest active postseason drought this season. The Phillies have been playing with house money ever since they clinched, and they have hit jackpot after jackpot after jackpot.

The Phillies believed they had built a team uniquely suited for postseason baseball — a few elite pitchers in the rotation and bullpen and a deep lineup built to slug. The results have confirmed just that. Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, the team’s top two starters, have a 2.17 ERA in seven combined postseason starts. José Alvarado and Seranthony Domínguez (rain-induced control loss on Sunday aside) fire nearly untouchable triple-digit heaters and can bend the ball every which way.

It helps that they’ve received a boost from a relentless Phillies offense that leads the postseason with 16 home runs and generally does not wait to get going. The Phillies have scored in the first three innings of all but one of their nine postseason wins. The high-end talent present on the pitching side is still plenty prevalent here.

There is no one else to start with except Bryce Harper, who authored one of the franchise’s greatest moments with his NLCS-winning eighth-inning, go-ahead laser of a two-run shot on Sunday. The 2021 NL MVP added the NLCS MVP trophy to his hardware cabinet and is sporting an absurd 1.351 OPS in the postseason. The Phillies’ cleanup hitter is at the tail end of one of the most powerful quintets in the sport. NL home run leader Kyle Schwarber starts things out. A currently red-hot Rhys Hoskins, whose five postseason long balls are tied for the league lead, is behind him. And five-tool catcher J.T. Realmuto is the latest Philly to begin heating up.

But what makes the Phillies’ offense so special is their pension for clutch performances from the bottom of their order. Rookie shortstop Bryson Stott, the team’s youngest player in Brandon Marsh and high-octane veteran Jean Segura have delivered some signature moments in Philadelphia’s Cinderella run.

Perhaps the biggest thing on Philadelphia’s side is its resiliency. Four weeks ago, the Phillies weren’t even sure if they’d make the postseason field. They won Game 1 of the Wild Card Round despite being down to their final two outs and down 2-0. They bounced back after throwing away a 4-0 lead in Game 2, a 4-0 first-inning deficit in Game 4 and a seventh-inning implosion in Game 5 against the Padres.

It’s also worth noting the Phillies are 5-0 at home this postseason, launching 12 long balls in the process. In doing so, they have reminded everybody of just how raucous an atmosphere Citizens Bank Park can provide. If the Phillies can win at least one of the first two games in Houston, they’ll gladly take their chances back at the Bank. After all, they started their series against Atlanta and San Diego with road splits, and neither team made it out of Philly with their season alive.

Houston Astros: 106-56, No. 1 AL West

ALDS: Beat SEA 3-0, ALCS: Beat NYY 4-0

The Phillies punched their postseason ticket with a 3-0 win in Houston on Oct. 3 against an Astros team that had nothing to play for. The Astros have played nine games since then, and they have won all of them. No team has the postseason and World Series experience that Houston possesses. Incredibly, this is their fourth trip to the Fall Classic since 2017, although Houston has just one championship to show for it.

Simply put, the Astros are a near flawlessly constructed team, capable of matching Philadelphia’s star power and besting its pitching depth. Take out a rocky start from Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the ALDS and Houston’s starting pitching has been all but untouchable this postseason. Verlander is turning back the clock to his prime Detroit form. Lance McCullers Jr. has fantastic career postseason numbers and held the Phillies to one run in six innings in that Oct. 3 game. Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier have deadly curveballs and are great at limiting hard contact.

Houston’s pitching prowess extends to its bullpen, as well. Ryan Pressly is a perfect 4/4 in save opportunities this postseason after recording an impressive 0.89 regular season WHIP. Bryan Abreu, Luis García, Rafael Montero and more, including former Phillie Héctor Neris and former Irish pitcher Brandon Bielak, are tough to beat, as well. If there’s one potential weak point in Houston’s bullpen, however, it’s a lack of a lefty.

There are virtually no weaknesses in Houston’s offense. Yes, Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve and former Notre Dame star Trey Mancini haven’t been up to their lofty standards recently. But both have outstanding pedigrees, and Altuve looks to be turning a corner with three hits in his last two games. Like Philadelphia, Houston boasts a hulking lefty slugger at DH in Yordan Alvarez. Only Aaron Judge had a better OPS than his astounding 1.019 mark.

Alex Bregman has been his usual elite self, especially as of late. 38-year-old Yuli Gurriel is hitting like he’s 28 so far in October. Rookie Jeremy Peña is looking like just as much as a seasoned veteran, leading the team in OPS in his first postseason trip. Second-year center fielder Chas McCormick has been stellar on both sides of the ball, too.

The Astros’ biggest advantage over the Phillies is their defense. Every Houston regular in the field except Alvarez in left field and Gurriel at first grades out above average — many by a wide margin — in Baseball Savant’s outs saved above average metric. The metric doesn’t account for catchers, but if it did, Martín Maldonado would surely earn stellar marks. Maldonado is in the 89th percentile for pop time on throws to second base. That bodes well for Houston’s chances of limiting an aggressive base-running team like the Phillies.

The Phillies have some good defenders on their bench, including a Domer of their own in Matt Vierling. But they need the lead to activate that boost, and earning that — let alone keeping it — is a tall task.

The Prediction

There’s a reason the Astros won 19 more games than the Phillies in the regular season. Quite a few, actually. While the Phillies have been being rewarded for becoming a much more sound organization this season, the Astros have been on this level for quite some time. There is a difference between the regular season and the postseason. And there is a difference between the first three rounds of the postseason and the World Series. Only three Phillies have played in the Fall Classic before. Most of Houston’s roster has at least once, if not multiple times over. That matters.

This series will likely come down to Philadelphia’s starting pitching. The longer this series goes, the harder it will be for the Phillies’ pitching depth to keep up with Houston’s. If Wheeler and Nola pitch deep into games, it lessens the burden on the bullpen and sets momentum in motion for the Phillies’ lineup to capitalize on.

The biggest advantage the Phillies have is their home-field advantage. I have been to over 70 baseball games in my life, including a pair in the postseason. I have never felt anything at a baseball game like what I experienced on Friday night in Game 3 of the NLCS at Citizens Bank Park. It felt more like I was in the student section of Notre Dame Stadium. Fans stood for most of the game and every time an opposing hitter had two strikes on them. Strangers and siblings embraced in almost identical fashion.

The Houston Astros are an unbelievably great baseball team. They are almost certainly the better team in this series. But there is a party going on right now in Philadelphia, and it just does not feel like it can be stopped. After a decade of dread, there is a new magic word in the City of Brotherly Love: belief.

It might be a good idea to start greasing the poles. Phillies in six.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu

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‘A-O-K’ again: The song and story that ended the Phillies’ 11-year wait

The first time the song blasted out of the speakers at Citizens Bank Park was in the bottom of the second inning on April 8, 2022. It had been 3,836 days since the last time the Philadelphia Phillies had played in the postseason. The world had changed countless times since. Every other team in the National League had made at least one postseason trip in the interim.

It wasn’t enough to just hope things would be different this time. Sure, Kyle Schwarber homered on the first at-bat of the year in his Phillies debut, but that wasn’t enough. After all, Andrew McCutchen did the same thing in 2019 and the season still ended in sadness. A clearer sign was needed.

“Livin’ in this big blue world, with my head up in outer space, I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K,” were the words dancing in the background as rookie infielder Bryson Stott stepped to the plate for his first Major League at-bat. “When I see trouble come my way,” the 2021 tune by Tai Verdes continued, “I be makin’ lemonade.”

“I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K. I know I’ll be A-O, A-O-K.”

There is no denying that is what the Phillies are right now. On Monday, they clinched their first postseason berth in 11 years in magical fashion. Kyle Schwarber launched the first pitch of the game 394 feet to start the wire-to-wire win, then smoked another in the eighth for good measure. Aaron Nola, maligned for his September struggles of years past, retired the first 20 Houston Astros hitters he faced. José Alvarado and Zach Eflin came out of the bullpen and did not allow a base-runner.

But perhaps the moment that made it truly inevitable came from the kid. The Phillies could have clinched Monday not just by winning, but with a loss from the Milwaukee Brewers as well. The latter looked inevitable as the Brewers trailed the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 in the ninth inning. But then, Hunter Renfroe homered to spur a remarkable comeback. Milwaukee won 6-5. The type of momentum that a team could ride, especially in competition against a club that had bombed the final month of the season the last four years.

But less than 60 seconds after Renfroe homered, Stott laced a laser over the right field wall to double Philadelphia’s lead. There were plenty of “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days” for Stott between his introduction and that exclamation point. He struggled to start the season and spent most of May in Triple-A. After a strong summer, he tired in September, sporting a poor .610 OPS. But October has been different. Stott drove in the game-winning run Sunday with a two-run double in a crucial 8-1 victory over the Nationals that set the stage for Monday.

In Philadelphia’s first postseason clinch since 2011, Stott went 3-3 with a walk. He made a diving play in the second inning to rob Alex Bregman of a base hit. He finished a triple shy of the cycle.

It would have meant a lot to any team, but it was especially fitting for the Phillies. After the team missed the 2020 postseason by just one game, owner John Middleton said, “I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don’t evaluate talent well.” From 2002-2017, only one Phillies first-round pick (Aaron Nola, taken No. 7 in 2014) played at least 100 games for the franchise.

The Phillies have always spent money, and they have hit on high-end free agents at a remarkable clip. But it has meant nothing without the depth. This year, however, is different. The stars once again largely lived up to the hype, but their impact was limited. Bryce Harper missed two months with a broken thumb. Jean Segura missed six weeks with the same injury. Zack Wheeler was sidelined for a month. Seranthony Domínguez and Nick Castellanos missed three and a half weeks each. The road back was as steep as ever.

This time, though, they had more help pushing them up the hill. Help that either didn’t know or didn’t care about the scars of the past. Twelve of the 28 players on Philadelphia’s active roster were drafted by the team, and the contributions they account for are significant.

There have been big swings from Harper and Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto. But there have also been ones from Alec Bohm and Dalton Guthrie and Darick Hall and Notre Dame’s own Matt Vierling. Nola, Wheeler and David Robertson have thrown masterpieces. So have Bailey Falter, Connor Brogdon and Ranger Suárez. The team picked up José Alvardo, Garrett Stubbs and Andrew Bellatti off the scrap heap. There wasn’t always a next man up in years past. This season, there was always someone to not only answer the bell, but ring it.

It all finally came full circle. The Phillies had turned one of their greatest weaknesses into a true strength. The incredible success they achieved from 2007-2011 — five consecutive NL East titles, two World Series appearances, and a championship in 2008 — were finally bookended with something other than heartbreak. The Phillies had been present for clinching celebrations in past seasons, but they were the ones sitting in the other dugout wondering what went wrong. This time, they jumped for joy.

It means so much because of how much has happened in the 4,017 days since the Phillies last played in a postseason game for everyone who held back tears or let them flow on Monday night. Any Phillies fan would be “lyin’ if they said they knew the way” back to a Red October would be the one that has transpired over the last eleven years. It was so difficult for so long.

This is the story of a franchise that held onto the glory days until they were anything but. A rebuild became inevitable, and the Phillies sunk to the bottom of the sport. From 2018-2021, the Phillies had their spurts and their chances. They were 63-48 in early August 2018 ,only to finish 17-34. They started 2019 33-22, but on their sixth straight loss immediately after, Andrew McCutchen tore his ACL and everything went south from there.

The 2020 team struggled early, but after Bryce Harper said they needed to win nine of ten to get back in it, they won 10 of 11. Then, they finished 1-6 when even 2-5 would have been enough to clinch. An incredible eight-game winning streak to start August 2021 vaulted them to first place in the NL East with 50 games to play. For the second time in four years, they were swept out of Atlanta near season’s end, and in doing so forced to watch the Braves celebrate the division title that was so close to being theirs.

But it was a different feeling sitting in room 248 in Siegfried Hall on Monday. A different tune — “Kilby Girl” by the Backseat Lovers, the entrance song of starter turned tragic figure turned renaissance reliever Zach Eflin, on for the first save opportunity of his Major League career — blasted through my speaker as the end neared. If it was easy, it would not have meant as much.

The view has changed so much since the last time. I watched the Phillies’ last postseason game as a fourth grader in the house of a friend I have not seen in person since 2015. A year and a half later, I started middle school, and he and my other best friend, also in attendance that fateful night in 2011, moved away. Three years later, high school began, and new, amazing friendships were eventually made. On March 20, 2020, a week after the world shut down, I found out I was going to attend my dream school. I watched the drought from all of these places and countless more. Agonized by the shortcomings and anxious to learn what it would take to end it.

In 2022, I watched Schwarber hit lead-off bombs from two different Siegfried quads and back home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. I watched from the stands at Citizens Bank Park and in the tucked away, almost invisible office within it as an intern in the Phillies’ ticket sales department, finding out just how special this organization is. One last stark reminder of all of the good the Phillies have brought about over the last 11 years in spite of all of the sadness that has happened on the diamond in that same time.

There have always been happy memories. But they felt a bit hollow without a happy conclusion to pair them with. Therefore, the ending was always going to be special. There are so many things to look back on now that the wait is over. The friendships that were and are. The growth from an energetic nine-year-old to a passionate but calculated college upper-classman. All of the feels — the good, the bad, the ugly and everything else.

All of those memories are all still here. Thanks to Bryson Stott and the 2022 Phillies, there is now another: sitting in ballpark seats in this big blue world, singing with new friends about makin’ Minute Maid. And fittingly, after the Phillies punched their postseason ticket, Minute Maid Park appeared to play “A-O-K” from its speakers, making the moment that much more special.

It is, as the third line of the most beautiful song in this “big blue world” says, “so sweet.”

Contact Andrew McGuinness amcguinn@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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McGuinness: Taking stock of the MLB postseason race

There are few moments as exciting on the sports calendar as the final three weeks of an MLB season. The everyday nature of the sport captivates the emotions of fans and their teams whose destinations after the regular season ends on Oct. 5 remain unknown. Add in an extra wild card spot in each league to expand the number of teams still in the mix and the importance of finishing top-two in each league to avoid the expanded best-of-three Wild Card round, and there’s even more intensity than ever.

So, with just 20 days remaining in the 2022 season, now is as good a time as any to review where the key races stand. And there are a lot of them. Only one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, has already punched their postseason ticket. A few others — namely the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees — are all but assured to join them. But even those teams have plenty to play for down the stretch.

The West divisions in both leagues are all the easiest to analyze. The Dodgers have officially clinched the NL West pennant, their ninth in the last 10 seasons. The Houston Astros, who have won the AL West four of the past five seasons, won’t be far behind. They currently lead the Seattle Mariners by 12.5 games.

Every other division race has at least some intrigue to it. The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are looking like the safest bets, with six and and seven game leads over the next closest teams, respectively. The Yankees rebounded in September after a brutal August that saw a once comfortable division lead start to shrink. The Cardinals have been playing outstanding baseball over the last few months, and there’s more drama around whether Albert Pujols can slug three more home runs to reach 700 for his career than their status for the postseason.

Meanwhile, the AL Central and NL East are total dead heats. Cleveland has been in control of the Central for a little while now with the Twins going cold. Meanwhile, the White Sox are looking to avoid being labeled the season’s biggest disappointment, winning 10 of their last 14 to pull within three games of the Guardians. Cleveland’s outstanding pitching could make them a tricky Wild Card round opponent, but the Guardians have to get there first.

Like their New York brethren, the Mets have seen a once comfortable division lead dwindle to almost nothing. However, it’s not that the Mets have fallen into a significant slump. Rather, the Braves look simply unbeatable for about the third extended period since May. Both old and new faces have capitulated the Braves up the standings. Plus, two-time All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies could return from the IL soon. A three-game head-to-head series in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 could decide this race.

As is typical, the tightest races are for Wild Card spots in both leagues. The American League is largely about playing for seeding at this point, although that’s as important as ever since the best Wild Card team will host their first series. That would be especially significant for the Toronto Blue Jays, considering multiple teams have been missing players when going to Toronto throughout the year due to Canada’s vaccine mandate. Toronto’s also on a strong 7-3 run, which is tied for the third best record of any team in their last 10 games.

Just a half game separates Toronto from the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays for Wild Card No. 1. The Rays have cooled off a bit after looking like legit challengers to the Yankees for a New York minute. Still, their depth is as outstanding as ever. And they’ll be even more dangerous if they get AL Cy Young contender Shane McClanahan back from injury soon.

Just getting in would be massive for the Mariners, who hold the longest postseason drought in the four major sports dating back to 2001. They came very close last year, missing by just two games. An aggressive offseason and infusion of youth looks like enough to push them over the top. The Baltimore Orioles are the only team within six games of the Mariners and Rays. And while it looks like the young O’s won’t have enough to make the postseason, this is still an incredibly encouraging year after losing 110 games a year ago. They could easily be on the right side of this mix in a similar article next year.

The loser of the Braves-Mets NL East race will almost certainly claim the first Wild Card spot. The other two, however, are still up for grabs. After years of not being able to make a big push from just behind the pack in September, it’s the Phillies who are currently in the best shape. Improved depth and production from their youth have pushed the Phillies, who hold the sport’s second longest postseason drought, to lead the Padres by 1.5 games and the Brewers by 3.5, holding the tiebreaker over both.

San Diego currently sits in the final Wild Card spot one year after missing the postseason in shocking fashion. The Padres are in a bit of a weird spot this year, too. They added star power in Juan Soto and Josh Hader (the latter ironically coming from Milwaukee) and quality depth in Josh Bell and Brandon Drury at the trade deadline. However, with Fernando Tatís Jr’s return spoiled due to suspension, the Padres aren’t as strong as they could be.

However, they’re still in a solid spot. The Brewers are as one-dimensional as any team still in the race. Their starting pitching is still outstanding and Devin Williams is lights out in the bullpen. But their offense lacks star power, with only one player (Hunter Renfroe) sporting an OPS above .800. Like the White Sox, that type of team can be very dangerous in the postseason if the right player or two gets hot. But they have to get there first.

Regardless of the results, it’s shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. At least three spots (AL Central champion, Wild Cards 2-3 in the NL) are undecided. And most of the other nine teams are in legitimate battles for seeding, which again is more important than ever under the new postseason format. All of it will somehow be sorted out in the next three weeks. What happens, of course, remains unknown. But whatever unfolds should be a blast to watch.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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Coolican: Major League Baseball rule changes a step forward for game

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has often found himself in hot water with fans, from his handling of the Astros’ cheating scandal to using two types of baseballs, but he finally was able to enact change that will improve baseball for years to come. Of course, the new rule changes aren’t without controversy, but data in the minor leagues has proven that these changes will be a positive for baseball overall. 

One of the leagues’ goals has been to reduce the so-called “three true outcomes”: strikeouts, walks and home runs (which have seemingly taken over the league in recent years). The changes have been rumored for months, but they were officially announced on Friday. They range from a pitch clock to banning the shift to larger bases. I’ll outline the changes, and what they will mean for the game. 

Pitch clock

If you’ve been to an MLB game in the past few seasons, you’ll have likely seen a clock somewhere in the outfield counting down before a pitch was thrown. Next year, this will be enforceable, with pitchers having 15 seconds with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on, to deliver the ball. Hitters must be in the box and “alert” at the eight second mark, and the catcher must be ready with 10 seconds to go. 

The timer resets with a pickoff throw, or when the pitcher steps off the rubber, although pitchers can only do this twice per batter. This effectively means they can only step off once with a runner on base, because if the runner knows the pitcher cannot throw over, they would be halfway to second base before the pitcher even starts his motion. 

A violation of this rule by a pitcher leads to an automatic ball, and vice versa for batters. This rule has proven effective in the minor leagues, where it has been implemented this year, with average game times falling by at least 15 minutes at every level. In some cases, game times dropped as much as half an hour, according to Baseball America. For reference, in rookie ball, where there is no pitch clock, game time has remained roughly the same. 

It is important to realize that the pitch clock does not mean less baseball, it simply means less dead time. We’re no longer likely to see a pitcher shake off the signs three, four, five times, or a hitter step out and adjust his batting gloves after every pitch. 

Another important aspect to note is that it will likely lead to slightly reduced velocity, because when a pitcher is throwing upwards of 100 miles per hour, even an extra few seconds of rest between pitches is vital. This leads to more balls in play, and fewer strikeouts, which along with a faster pace of play, is the league’s goal.

Larger bases

Traditionally, bases have been 15 inches; next year, they will be increased to 18 inches. In practical terms, this leads to a 4.5 inch decrease between the bases. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it will almost certainly increase stolen base attempts. Additionally, it is more likely players can beat out a ground ball, encouraging more balls to be put in play.

Again, the minor leagues have tested this rule and it has proven successful, with the rate of steals per inning rising from 0.65 in 2019 to 0.96 this year in Triple A, according to The Score. Another stated aim of the league was to reduce collisions and injuries on the base paths, and the bigger bases will give players more room to maneuver. 

Steals have increasingly fallen out of favor since analytics began taking over baseball, but these changes will perhaps bring them back this year. We may be witnessing the beginning of the small-ball renaissance, which I would argue is much more exciting than the baseball being played now. 

Banning the shift

This is the rule change that has created the most controversy among fans and players alike. Teams must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two on each side of second base. The league aims to “increase the batting average on balls in play, to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism and to restore more traditional outcomes on batted balls.”

The batting average on balls in play this year is 0.291, which is 10 points lower than in 2006 which was before the analytics and the shift had taken hold of the game. Some have expressed concern that this will merely help players who have struggled to adjust to the shift — think Joey Gallo — rather than improving batting average on balls in play (BABIP) league wide. The data has been mixed in the minor leagues as to whether this will have a great impact on batting averages, but it will certainly be interesting to see. 

Overall, Manfred and the league did a great job on these rule changes, and I believe they will make baseball a more exciting sport for years to come. Many baseball traditionalists will always argue against any sort of change, but baseball has been declining in popularity compared to other sports for a long time now. It was clear that a change was needed, and Manfred was able to do exactly that without compromising any aspect of the game we love.