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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.