It’s Oct. 23, 2022. Up 3-1 in the National League Championship Series, the Phillies find themselves down 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth of Game Five.
After a leadoff single into left by J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper puts on a last touch of pine tar and rosin on his bat, straps on his batting gloves, and prepares for the biggest at-bat of his career.
Harper — the Phillies’ most dangerous hitter — begins the at-bat aggressively, whiffing on a 96-mile-an-hour fastball to the outside corner. But he refuses to bite on the ensuing high fastball and a low changeup. With a 2-2 count and the crowd at Citizens Bank Park overcome with anxiety, he does it.
Harper rips a 99-mile-per-hour fastball into the seats in left field, sending the stadium and the entire city of Philadelphia into a frenzy. Pounding his chest and emphasizing the word “Phillies” on his jersey, Harper trots the bases as a hero. In a moment that Harper was built for, he delivered. The biggest swing of his illustrious career sent the Philadelphia Phillies to the 2022 World Series — the team’s first appearance since 2009.
Fast-forward to the present day and the Phillies find themselves back in the playoffs. After a disappointing loss to the Astros in last year’s World Series, the Phillies were determined to make it back to the game’s biggest stage and avenge their defeat.
However, the beginning of the season was frustratingly inconsistent. With new star shortstop Trea Turner not playing up to par, the Phillies struggled mightily, much to the chagrin of their increasingly impatient fanbase. Now in the second half of the season, the Phillies have returned to form and eventually clinched the National League’s top Wild Card spot.
Last Tuesday, the Phillies faced a familiar divisional foe in the Miami Marlins for the Wild Card. Immediately in the series, Phillies fans made their presence felt. ESPN Major League Baseball (MLB) analyst Jeff Passan describes the atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park as an “SEC stadium in baseball.” In Game 1, with a thunderous crowd watching, Phillies ace Zach Wheeler threw 6.2 innings, only allowing one run and five hits while striking out eight. Taking advantage of yet another stellar Wheeler performance, the Phillies drove in four runs via strong efforts by Trea Turner and Nick Castellanos, who each recorded two hits in the win.
Game Two saw the Miami Marlins succumb to the intense atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park and the Phillies’ unrelenting offense. With the support of a dominant start from Aaron Nola, the Phillies’ offense erupted. Any window of opportunity for a Marlins comeback was closed shut after a grand slam from Bryson Stott in the sixth inning put the Phillies up 7-0, and sent the stadium into yet another frenzy. (The moment would go viral because the crowd sang the slugger’s walk up song before his homer.)
Now in the National League Divisional Series for the second straight year against the Atlanta Braves, this exciting Phillies team faces a tough task. Throughout the regular season, the Atlanta Braves have been, far and away, the most dominant team in all of baseball. But, once the calendar turns to October, the regular season goes out the window, and it truly becomes anyone’s game.
For the Phillies to beat this dominant Atlanta Braves team and get back to the 2023 World Series, here are three players who will need to perform:
Aaron Nola has had a disappointing 2023 campaign. In a contract year, Nola posted a 4.46 earned run average (ERA) and a wins above replacement (WAR) of 2.1, both considerably worse than his career averages. His walk percentage shot up to 5.7 percent, and his hard-hit rate went from 31.6 percent (top 8 percent in the league) to 38.5 percent. Nola, who is known for his unforgiving curveball, has a strikeout percentage that has dropped 25.5 percent this season. In an up-and-down year, Nola gave up 32 home runs, the seventh most of any pitcher in the MLB.
If Nola can return to his prior form, the Phillies will have a lethal one-two starting pitching combination that is just as good, if not better, than the other remaining National League playoff teams.
Nola’s postseason got off to a strong start against the Marlins, where he pitched seven scoreless innings, giving up three hits, striking out three, and only walking one. With strong command of his fastball, Nola was able to dominate counts and control the game. Moving forward, the Phillies need Nola to continue to build off this strong start. While he might not be wearing a Phillies jersey after this season, the team needs a dominant and consistent number-two pitcher to make a run similar to last year’s.
After a planned standing ovation to uplift the slumping star, Trea Turner has returned to his true form, recording a .337 batting average and an on-base plus slugging (OPS) of 1.057. His comeback helped solidify Philadelphia’s spot in the playoffs, and if they are going to continue their success, Turner needs to keep showing up.
Like Nola, Turner’s postseason has gotten off to a solid start. With two hits in each game against the Marlins, Turner’s presence has been felt at the plate and on the base paths. A perfect blend of speed and power, Turner is an all-star-caliber shortstop for a reason. When Turner is playing at his best, so are the Phillies. His performance will prove to be an integral piece of the puzzle if the Phillies want to knock off the Braves.
The Philadelphia bullpen has been one of the strongest, most consistent aspects of this year’s squad. However, Craig Kimbrel, the team’s closer, has not. In August, Kimbrel’s ERA ballooned to 5.73, among the worst in the majors. Struggling to command his knuckle-curve pitch, Kimbrel’s end of the season was much less consistent than his first half, during which he was voted an All-Star for the ninth time in his career.
While Kimbrel’s play in September was a marked improvement, his lack of consistency is still a concern going into the postseason. Kimbrel needs to return to his form in June if the Phillies are going to make a deep run.
On paper, the Phillies are nowhere close to as good as the Atlanta Braves, They’re faced with a dangerous lineup headlined by Ronald Acuña Jr., the frontrunner for the National League MVP and Matt Olson, who led the National League in home runs. But the Phillies are playing their best and looking their most dangerous right now. There is an intangible element to this Philadelphia squad that makes cheering for them contagious and, frankly, inevitable. Will the high hopes of this underdog Phillies team be enough to knock off the high-octane Braves? If any team can beat this all-time Braves offensive powerhouse, it’s this 2023 Philadelphia Phillies squad powered by the magic of Red October.