It was a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 5 of Sunday’s National League Championship Series, and it sent the Philadelphia Phillies to a 4-3 win over the San Diego Padres and a place in that franchise’s World Series for the first time since 2009. The Houston Astros or the New York Yankees are waiting for you.
The Blast was Harper’s fifth of the postseason. At this point, he’s as close to matching Babe Ruth in 1928 or Reggie Jackson in 1977 as baseball has seen in the past October. He hits .419 with a 1.351 basis plus slugging percentage. He is the center of the Phillies universe, his gravitational pull like that of a thousand suns.
As left ranger Suárez pulled back Padres catcher Austin Nola with a flyball to the right to end the top of the ninth – a hairy half-inning right-hander David Robertson was pulled into after making consecutive one-out walks – the Phillies threw up their gloves and gathered at the center of the diamond to call a victory party that is sure to rage late into the night.
Svrluga: Bryce Harper lives for the limelight. Now he owns October.
“We’ve got four left!” Harper shouted to a roaring crowd from the stage set up behind second base, where he was presented with the NLCS MVP trophy. He was referring to the number of wins remaining to secure the championship. “We’ll bring that with us [expletive] home boys!”
At the Phillies’ victorious clubhouse, the first bottles of champagne were aimed at the unabashed face of manager Rob Thomson, who took over from the fired Joe Girardi in early June, when the team had a 22-29 record, and led them to a 65-46 draw the rest of the way up.
“For me personally, it’s special,” said Thomson, a major league rookie manager but a 37-season veteran of professional baseball. “But there are so many guys at this club who have never been in the playoffs [before this year]. … I’m probably more happy for her than anyone else.”
Those 87 regular-season wins were good enough for the Phillies to sneak into the postseason as the sixth seed — a prize that didn’t even exist until this year’s playoff expansion. But they turned into a juggernaut in the postseason, blitzing three teams — the St. Louis Cardinals, the Atlanta Braves and now the Padres — whom they collectively surpassed by 22 games in regular-season scoring. In three rounds they are 9-2, including 5-0 at home.
“You could see us growing together, always feeling like if we came in, we had a chance to fight,” said Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations, who is looking for a third World Series title to go with To go this he won in 1997 with the Florida Marlins and in 2018 with the Boston Red Sox. “Our stars have risen.”
The Phillies held a slim lead for much of the game, built on Rhys Hoskins’ homer with two runs in the third and more than six outstanding innings from ace Zack Wheeler. But carrying that lead home would prove a harrowing task given the Padres’ resilience and the deteriorating elements.
Much of the game took place in light rain and a steady wind that shrouded the distant downtown skyline in an eerie haze. Beyond direct center, between the Stars and Stripes and a giant LED Liberty Bell that lights up after Phillies home runs and wins, two red flags fluttered in the blustery wind — representing the only World Series titles in franchise history from 1980 through 2000 2008
But the rain picked up and the field got muddy in the top of seventh as the Padres scored twice to forge a 3-2 lead. The starting shot that Seranthony Domínguez hit on the third wild pitch of the inning — equal to the number of wild pitches he has thrown all of the regular season and spanning 51 innings.
The tie run, which Wheeler was billed for, came on an RBI from Padres designated hitter Josh Bell, who laced Domínguez with a double. Pinch runner José Azocar was third, then finished on second and third of Domínguez’s wild ropes. Suddenly the Padres performed a run.
Major League Baseball took a risk by even attempting to play Sunday, with the forecast calling for light rain and a narrow window for a game. As the postseason schedule was shortened – consequences of the owner lockout delaying the start of the season – the traditional travel day between Games 5 and 6 of the Championship Series was erased. Had the Padres won on Sunday, the teams would have met again Monday night in San Diego. A rainy Sunday would have thrown the rest of the postseason schedule into chaos.
In a way, Harper’s homer — on a 99-mph sinker by the Padres’ Robert Suarez — took MLB off the hook for what is sure to be a much-tested decision to weather the heavier rain in the seventh inning.
As Harper stepped onto the plate at first base after a single with JT Realmuto, a strange stillness settled over Citizens Bank Park, as if the outcome were preordained. The Padres may have contributed to that sentiment by not bringing in Josh Hader, arguably the most unbeatable assist in the game, and instead sticking with Suarez, who was in his second inning of work.
“At that point,” manager Bob Melvin said, “I had faith in Suarez.”
Harper, too, reacted like someone who expected to do exactly what he was doing. He’s celebrated other big hits with wild gestures and howls, as he did after his second RBI double in Game 4 on Saturday night. Here he looked into his dugout, pointed to the word scrawled across his chest – Phillies – and started jogging.
“No matter who was on the mound, No. 3 is made for that kind of moment,” Hoskins said. “And he did it again. Neither of us were surprised.”
The spring was miserable for the Phillies, who didn’t see the bright side of .500 for two months and got their manager fired. The summer started with a roar and ended with a hiss, with the Phillies showing little evidence they could survive the anticipated postseason gantlet.
But autumn? The fall was incredible for these Phillies. And thanks in large part to Harper’s Searing Bat, it’s going to be dragging on a little longer than anyone here could have imagined a few weeks ago.