Red October returns: Phillies revel in postseason magic behind J.T Realmuto, Bryce Harper, & the bullpen

Red October returns: Phillies revel in postseason magic behind J.T Realmuto, Bryce Harper, & the bullpen

Updated: 1 month, 13 days, 17 hours, 22 minutes, 3 seconds ago
p >The playoffs are always magical.

The Eagles won Super Bowl LII, and the Sixers contend every year, but, in case you’d forgotten — and we’d understand if you’d forgotten, since it’s been 11 years — the baseball playoffs are the best playoffs.

When you win like the Phillies win, it takes your breath away. Every pitch matters, a hero lurks around every corner, and you expect the unexpected.

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The 87-win Phillies beat the 101-win Braves in four games to take the National League Division Series on a perfect Saturday afternoon. They begin the National League Championship Series on Tuesday in either San Diego or Los Angeles; the 89-win Padres led the 111-win Dodgers, 2-1, entering Saturday night.

J.T. Realmuto hit the first inside-the-park home run by a catcher in playoff history in the third inning. He then beat out an infield hit. He’s a catcher, and he’s fast, but catchers don’t drive in two runs with their speed. Realmuto did. Of course he did.

His magic came in the middle of an 8-3 win that set off a third champagne celebration in 13 days: playoff clincher in Houston, wild-card win in St. Louis, and, now, somehow, this. “Dancing On My Own” might be their new theme song, but they’ve brought the frenzied passion of playoff baseball back to a city and a region.

It’s crazy. It’s the playoffs. The baseball playoffs. Football’s great, and basketball’s beautiful, but there’s nothing else like playoff baseball.

Now do you remember?

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A team that earned the sixth seed — the third wild-card spot — now sits four wins away from a World Series berth. If the Phillies win the World Series, they would be the third-worst team (by winning percentage) to win it all, behind the 2006 Cardinals, whom they swept, 2-0, last weekend in the wild-card round, and the 1987 Twins.

Don’t doubt them.

Consider how they did what they’ve done.

They fired famous manager Joe Girardi on June 3, promoted anonymous third base coach Rob Thomson, and caught fire.

They lost, for extended periods, their second baseman, their ace, and their closer; they cut their setup man; and they played almost the entire season with Bryce Harper, the reigning MVP, either out (thumb) or diminished (elbow). He has homered three times in five playoff games, his third an eighth-inning cherry-on-top Saturday.

Now, they’re 5-1 in the playoffs, and their only loss was with their ace on the mound. Crazy, yes, but remember: Red Octobers never make sense.

Pitchers like Brett Myers draw nine-pitch walks and light hitters like Shane Victorino hit grand slams (see: 2008 NLDS).

The Phillies deserve this. They beat a 101-win team that won its fifth straight National League East title and was defending its World Series championship, and it wasn’t really close. The Phillies were a far better team.

They got a 10-out start in Game 1 from Ranger Suárez against Braves ace Max Fried, and they won; they knocked Fried out after 10 outs, too.

They got a three-inning start in Game 4 from Noah Syndergaard against Charlie Morton, a postseason stud, and they won. Syndergaard and five relievers gave up three solo home runs but struck out 15 Braves; closer Seranthony Domínguez, who just got his job back, fanned all three Braves he faced in the ninth.

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Six pitchers, by design, shut down one of the most potent offenses in baseball.

Of course they did.

Rhys Hoskins absolved himself of all his sins with a three-run, bat-spike homer that blew open Game 3 of the series on Friday. His legend grew Saturday, when his excuse-me single in the sixth plated the Phillies’ fifth run.

The 45,660 at Citizens Bank Park were still basking in the afterglow of Aaron Nola, who’d failed in other autumns but notched a third straight lockdown start: He cliched the wild-card berth, clinched the 2-0 sweep of the wild-card round, then dominated Friday, too.

That same night, rookie Bryson Stott put together a nine-pitch at-bat that ended with an RBI double and started the six-run third inning. He delivered two gorgeous defensive plays to his right Saturday.

Saturday, No. 8 hitter Brandon Marsh, acquired from the Angels at the trade deadline to play center field, launched a three-run homer in the second. It was the 14th home run in his career.

Next inning, Realmuto drove a pitch 400 feet, off the 409-foot, angled, left-center field wall. It caromed, and Realmuto, an option quarterback in high school back in Oklahoma, showed off his speed. By the time he reached second base, third base coach Dusty Wathan was waving him home. Realmuto slid in headfirst, but he made it by a mile.

He popped up and exchanged bash-brothers forearm smashes with Bryce Harper. He’d staked the Phillies to what seemed to be an insurmountable 4-1 lead.

Hyperbole? Sure.

That’s just playoff baseball.

Jose Alvarado, Syndergaard’s third understudy, managed a quick, clean sixth, with a bit of help — he froze Dansby Swanson for the second out on an ankle-burner that was ball three — but everybody eventually gets umpire charity, especially in October. Stott got some in the seventh. Alvarado, a 100-mph stallion, struggled so badly in late May that he got sent to triple A for three weeks. He came back slimmer, came back with a cutter, came back with control, and he’s been the team’s best reliever since. He exited with two out in the seventh, arms raised, waving to a fan base that had booed him without mercy the past two seasons.

Of course he did. It’s playoff baseball.

He was relieved by Zach Eflin, whose chronic knee issues cost him his starting job this season. He returned as a reliever, and quickly won the closer’s job that had been vacated by Domínguez, who also got hurt (again). Eflin lost the job just as quickly — he’d struggled in his three postseason outings — but he set up Domínguez on Saturday. He struck out the first three batters and got a weak grounder for the fourth out.

Zach Eflin, No. 4 starter turned shutdown playoff setup man. Of course he is.

As the players danced with their families on the field after the game, Eflin wore his black NLCS playoff T-shirt and waved his black NLCS playoff hat in thanks to fans who just didn’t want to go home.

Who could blame them?

It was playoff baseball.

It was magic.