PHILADELPHIA — Eight months ago, when MLB’s owners locked out the players, Dave Dombrowski needed to collect his thoughts. The veteran executive anticipated a rush whenever business resumed. The most prepared organizations might have an advantage, so Dombrowski grabbed a spare legal pad that became his nucleus. He listed the priority free-agent and trade targets. He wanted his people to know who to call first.
By the end of spring training, Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, had stuffed the legal pad in a desk drawer inside his office at the team’s Florida complex, and assembled the highest-paid roster in franchise history. He had acquired all of the sluggers he could. The roster was a mishmash of pieces without a logical fit.
It had to work.
“There’s a great Philly history,” Dombrowski said a few days before the season began. “We need to celebrate it, and they’ll be part of what we’re doing. I mean, it’s wonderful. But we need to create our own identity.”
The Phillies were built for Saturday night. They did not arrive here — one win from the World Series — on an expected path. Not even close. But, when the top of the first inning ended at 8:07 p.m. ET and they trailed by four runs before ever taking a swing, the Phillies knew. This was a team built to outslug its deficiencies. It’s not how teams win in October. But the Phillies won Game 4 of this National League Championship Series in the most audacious way.
“This was the game that our offense needed to step up,” Nick Castellanos said after a convincing 10-6 win over the Padres gave the Phillies a 3-1 series lead.
It is one thing to know it. It’s another to smash four homers, score 10 runs, and make a game in which their starting pitcher lasted two outs anti-climatic by the end.
When there is pressure to score, some lineups wilt. Four batters into the bottom of the first, a four-run deficit had become one.
“I think that we all knew,” Castellanos said. “But I think we thrived for it. Getting punched in the mouth in the first inning was just a little bit of a reminder. ‘All right, we’re in a fight. Let’s go.’ We did a great job.”
The Phillies can win the pennant Sunday afternoon. Citizens Bank Park shook when Rhys Hoskins homered for the second time Saturday to tie the score at 6-6 in the fifth inning. It shook again two batters later when Bryce Harper cracked a double to left-center field that put the Phillies ahead. The second comeback was complete. The Phillies weren’t losing.
“This is my f—ing house!” Harper yelled from second base.
This is it. Years and years of promises that something greater was on the horizon — something worth losing your voice, something worth spending your savings to see in person, something that feels like the halcyon days but different in the weirdest, most perfect way.
“It feels like we’re living it,” Hoskins said. “The red towels. It’s deafening loud, right? As soon as you step on the field, really in batting practice, you can just kind of feel the electricity building.
“I need some more. I need some more of it.”
These Phillies have more than an identity. They have something franchises dream about. Something that cannot be articulated on a legal pad. They have captured an entire city in less than three weeks. It happened so fast that it’s too surreal to believe.
“I’ve had so much good fortune,” manager Rob Thomson said, “I make sure that I don’t get hit by a bus when I cross the street. Yeah.”
The Phillies can win the pennant Sunday afternoon.
— MLB (@MLB) October 23, 2022
Here is Harper, batting .410/.439/.872 in 42 plate appearances this postseason, playing elite baseball on the biggest stage of his career. He was made for this moment and has delivered in every imaginable way. It is incredible.
“When the whole spotlight turns on and it’s the brightest, usually the best are able to be the calmest,” Castellanos said. “He’s showing that.”
When Harper signed for $330 million before the 2019 season, Matt Klentak was the general manager and Gabe Kapler was the manager. Harper knew the farm system was weak. The Phillies were not contenders by adding Harper. What were his expectations for contending?
“This,” Harper said. “Right?”
But Harper was realistic when he arrived. He recalled those feelings Saturday night, one win from the World Series.
“It’s going to take us a couple of years to get there, right?” Harper said. “It’s going to take us a couple of years to build this thing. It’s going to take a couple of years to understand what our identity is and who we are and what we can do.”
In the seventh inning, after J.T. Realmuto swatted the team’s fourth home run of the night, the smoke from the fireworks that exploded above Citizens Bank Park hovered over the field. Harper batted. Chants filled the ballpark. “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” Harper grounded out. People cheered. This is it.
“You look at the character of the individuals here,” Castellanos said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Timing is everything. Camaraderie is everything. Everybody is just leaning on each other. Everybody is just trusting each other. That’s relieving a lot of the pressure from all of the individuals. We’re just doing our thing. Everybody is something different. Every day it’s somebody different.”
It’s Connor Brogdon, lowered on the bullpen depth chart because of inconsistent results, tying a career-high with 2 1/3 innings of effective relief. It’s Noah Syndergaard and David Robertson, two Dombrowski acquisitions at the trade deadline, combining for nine outs in the later innings. It’s the top of a lineup, expected to do so much before this season started, rising to meet the moment as the Nos. 1-5 hitters — Kyle Schwarber, Hoskins, Realmuto, Harper and Castellanos, guaranteed a combined $632.2 million by the Phillies — went 9-for-18 and scored all 10 runs.
“We haven’t had those five guys together all that much,” Thomson said. “Coming down the stretch, we finally got them all together. Tonight is like one of those nights where you think that’s what you have when you put it together in spring training.”
After 21 minutes in the field in the top of the first, the Phillies congregated in the dugout before batting in the bottom of the inning. No one had to say anything. A few repeated one thing: “Twenty-seven outs.” The Phillies had time.
“We’ve been down before,” Hoskins said. “We knew with a bullpen game, the possibility of multiple guys having to be put in positions that they’re not used to being in, that we were going to have to slug. We did that.”
The Phillies can win the pennant Sunday afternoon. They have outperformed every reasonable expectation and, now, even the most unreasonable ones. They are on the precipice of something amazing.
“I don’t think any of us are in shock,” Harper said. “But (we can) stand here and say that we’re grateful and understand that this opportunity is huge.”
This is it.
“I can’t imagine,” Hoskins said, “what tomorrow is going to be like.”
(Top photo of Bryce Harper: Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)