Phillies pushed to the brink in the World Series but head to Houston with belief

PHILADELPHIA — The last gasps of a ballpark that witnessed more than everyone could have ever expected came a few minutes after midnight as a Thursday in November bled into Friday. Across the country, it was a commercial break. Inside Citizens Bank Park, it was the middle of the ninth — Rhys Hoskins, JT Realmuto and Bryce Harper were going to bat, and everyone in the blue seats stood. They believed. They are all going to remember how they believed, and they are going to want to feel it again one day. They will need to feel it again.

“You feel the sound inside of you,” Alec Bohm said. “It’s fuel to get you back, you know?”

There will not be baseball here again until April 6, 2023, and before that game against Cincinnati, there will be a ring ceremony to honor the 2022 Phillies. It’s just a matter of how big the rings are and, if the Phillies go to Houston and win two games in two days against the formidable Astros, they should make the rings bigger than any team has ever made them. The Phillies and Astros played for almost four hours Thursday night and the result, a 3-2 Phillies loss in Game 5 of the World Series, was a marvel. The Phillies matched a machine, and they lost when two Houston role players made all-time catches to preserve a tense lead.

“We’ve faced adversity all year,” Nick Castellanos said. “What’s a better storybook ending than if we can go there and win this in Game 7?”

Castellanos was at the plate for the last pitch of the year in South Philadelphia. He had taken three straight balls to work a full count. Harper, the tying run, was on first base. There was a roar that cascaded through the stands, then it was silent just as Astros closer Ryan Pressly fired a hanging slider. Castellanos pounded it into the ground, right at shortstop Jeremy Peña, and that was it.

The Phillies smashed five homers here Tuesday night, were no-hit Wednesday night, and squandered opportunities Thursday night. A Houston team engineered for the postseason outlasted them. There was nothing magical about losing Game 5, and it was natural to feel anger. No one knows when the World Series will return to Citizens Bank Park.

There is another generation of players and fans who know what it feels like. “The crowd was dream-like,” Hoskins said. “We’ve all talked about it. Stuff that I think all of us will cherish and remember for a long time. So, yeah, it definitely stings. But it won’t sting if we come back with a trophy.”

And if they don’t?

“I would just say that postseason games here make everything worth it, you know?” Castellanos said. “The ups and downs of the regular season, being able to bring playoff baseball here to Philadelphia, it makes everything from spring training on to October worth it.”

Kyle Schwarber hits a solo home run in the first, and the ballpark explodes. (John Geliebter/USA Today)

Realmuto, more than halfway to second base, put both of his hands on his head in the ninth inning. He couldn’t believe it. No one could. Chas McCormick, who played baseball at West Chester Henderson High School, had just slammed his body into the grated fence that protects the out-of-town scoreboard and made the catch of his life. If this were a storybook, the ball caroms and rolls into no man’s land. Realmuto, the fastest and most athletic catcher in baseball, scampers around the bases and scores the tying run in the ninth inning on an inside-the-park homer.

He already has one of those this postseason — three weeks ago, when the Phillies were still a novelty and not a city’s obsession. Everything, up until the final two nights at Citizens Bank Park, was enchanted. It was too good to be true, and Houston served as the impeccable villain.

The Phillies were the best team in Major League Baseball with runners in scoring position during the regular season. They were constructed to outslug whatever ailed them. Then, they went hitless in 20 consecutive at-bats with runners in scoring position. According to Elias Sports Bureau, it was the third-longest such streak in World Series history.

“It’s the ebbs and flows of the game,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said, “and sometimes you go through times when you don’t hit with runners in scoring position. Then, three days later, everybody’s getting hits. So we just got to keep battling, that’s all.”

The Astros boast some of the best pitching in the sport. The Phillies were built to challenge the notion that good pitching always beats good hitting in the postseason, and maybe making it this far is a referendum on that strategy. But many pockets of the Phillies’ lineup have fallen into slumps during this World Series.

Realmuto is 1 for his last 17 with 11 strikeouts since his dramatic go-ahead homer in Game 1. Hoskins is 1 for his last 19 with 11 strikeouts. Castellanos is 3-for-20 with eight strikeouts in the World Series. Jean Segura, who snapped the hitless streak with runners in scoring position when he slapped a run-scoring single in the eighth inning Thursday, is 3-for-18 against Houston and has not registered an extra-base hit since Game 4 of the National League Division Series vs. Atlanta. Rookie shortstop Bryson Stott is hitless in the World Series, although he’s drawn some key walks.

Rhys Hoskins was 0-for-5 with four strikeouts in Game 5. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

“You get down to the last two teams, there’s going to be some really good pitchers on those teams,” Bohm said. “That’s how you get here. Yeah, we’ve banged the ball around in a few of these games and put up some crooked numbers, but pitching at this time of year there’s not many weaknesses. Those guys are bringing A-plus stuff. When they’re executing, it makes it really hard.”

Realmuto saw it both ways.

“We’re striking out more than we normally would in those situations and that’s a testament to how good their pitchers are,” Realmuto said. “They’re doing a better job of putting the ball in play with runners in scoring position and we’re just striking out a little bit too much. That’s something that if we’re going to be successful the next two games, we’re just going to have to put the ball in play when guys are out there.”

The most notable example: Brandon Marsh, the youngest player on the Phillies roster, came to the plate with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth inning. The Phillies were rallying, down by one run. All Marsh had to do was put the ball in the air to tie the game. He struck out on three pitches against Pressly. Then Kyle Schwarber smashed a ball down the first-base line that Trey Mancini devoured to end the inning.

The Phillies had runners on base in seven innings. They are facing elimination for the first time this entire postseason.

“It’s going to take everything,” Schwarber said. “It’s going to take everyone. We’re excited. Trust me. Sure, it’s frustrating, but we’re also very excited.”

Jean Segura singled to drive in a run in the eighth inning, but the Phillies’ rally died there. (John Geliebter/USA Today)

After the loss, the Phillies packed for one more trip. It was on the road where they came together — where they started this charmed race through the National League so they could crash the World Series. When an 18-day road trip began in late September, the goal inside the clubhouse was to do enough to bring it back to Citizens Bank Park. They had to feel it. They needed to feel it.

In the month since, the Phillies have increased their season-ticket base by about 15 percent for 2023, according to a team official. That’s almost 1,500 more seats sold. There is something building from this month of sublime baseball, even if the Phillies go to Houston and fall short of an improbable championship. A flag will fly forever to recognize the 2022 Phillies. The storybook ending? That might be too sweet.

“Backs against the wall,” Bohm said. “We do what we’ve done all year.”

There is a counter in the middle of the Phillies clubhouse, and on Thursday it became a place to commemorate this journey. There were six Champagne bottles with a bunch of signatures — and more needed. Someone had his teammates autograph a pair of goggles used during all of the series-clinching parties. Some players put their large name placards from the World Series media day on the counter and had teammates sign them.

This isn’t over. But there is no more baseball at Citizens Bank Park this year, and no one will forget what it was like here when the unexpected happened again and again.

“We’re here, I think, because we trusted ourselves this far,” Hoskins said. “I don’t see why there is any reason to change that.”

(Top photo of JT Realmuto: Al Bello / Getty Images)


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