‘It gives me goosebumps’: How the Phillies saved their season and fulfilled a fan base’s dreams

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES SLUGGER Bryce Harper didn’t quite get his birthday wish.

Throughout the season, Harper had said he still wanted to play on his 30th birthday, which was Sunday. That day came and went without the Phillies on the court – but only on a technicality.

It’s mid-October and Philadelphia is still playing baseball – and playing it as well as it has all year. After stunning the Atlanta Braves in four games in the National League Division Series, the Phillies weren’t playing a Game 5 on Harper’s birthday; they were flying to San Diego, where they will face the Padreson on Tuesday night in Game 1 of an unlikely NL Championship Series between two teams that entered the playoffs as the No. 5 and 6 seeds in the league.

It was no easy journey for a Phillies team that, in just five months, went from an injury-riddled under-.500 squad to a serious playoff contender.

But Harper – who himself was sidelined for two months with a broken thumb – never lost faith in his team.

“He said, ‘We’re not losing,'” Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins recalled after the Phillies’ decisive victory over the visiting Braves on Saturday. “He’s been saying it since day one in St. Louis.[during the wild card series]. I think it’s the belief he has in us. It’s the trust we have in each other.”

LIKE MOST POST-SEASON TEAMS, that belief started for Philadelphia in spring training. But even the Phillies might admit he’s dwindled at the start of 2022.

During spring training, the Phillies thought they would overcome any defensive issues with a powerful offense. But the team got off to a rocky start, falling to 22-29 on June 1 under veteran Joe Girardi. President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski felt the Phillies needed a change. The Phillies were built to win now, but they did anything but.

“Sometimes when you make a leadership change, you just get a little bit different feeling in the clubhouse,” Dombrowski told ESPN. “It’s not necessarily negative about the individual involved – Joe, in this case. It’s just a different feeling.”

And that change in the clubhouse was necessary, though it’s hard even for Philadelphia players to put their finger on what wasn’t working. One player summed it up like this: “A clubhouse is a living organism. And it just wasn’t breathing properly.”

The Phillies promoted popular bench coach Rob Thomson and, seemingly in an instant, everything was different. They won their first eight games under Thomson, jumping over .500 for the first time since opening week of the season.

Philadelphia has found its mojo.

“We started playing exactly how we thought we were going to play after spring training,” Thomson said. “It all kind of fell into place, right there. I don’t think it had anything to do with me. It just started to click.”

But if you ask his players, the culture change has everything to do with Thomson.

“He kept the game going,” Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos said during the champagne-soaked NLDS victory celebration on Saturday. “Sometimes managers come through for the ‘W’ that day, but in the process get in the way of other players’ feelings and personalities. We didn’t have everyone feeling the best versions of themselves.

“When Thomson was able to come in, without any pressure on him, he just walked out and let the baseball play.”

As Dombrowski added, “Thomson could be a little more laid back. Joe, a little more intense. It’s not good or bad, just different.”

Under Girardi, the Phillies had already fallen into a deep hole in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador; but with the playoffs expanded, they knew they still had a chance to play in October. And they had an undying belief that they were better than their record was telling everyone. Slowly, this record caught up with their mindset.

“It’s to be honest: I think we [believed] coming out of spring training because we knew we had a good ball club,” Thomson said. “We knew our bullpen was good, the rotation was good, we had a great offense. We just got off to a bit of a slow start and sort of a spiral.”

Then came the change of direction. The team went 65-46 over the remainder of the regular season — and, of course, made the playoffs for the first time since 2011.

“The sweetest thing about all of this is that no one really knows what this team has been through unless you’ve been here every day,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “Seeing this whole team together gives me goosebumps.”

THERE IS HUNGER among Philadelphia fans — where a loyal base hadn’t seen playoff baseball in a decade — that’s appreciated throughout the Phillies organization.

“And I get chills because it excites me, man. It makes me want to win even more,” Harper said. “And when they show up like that for us, it makes our team even better.”

Even after Harper watched his former team, the Washington Nationals, win the World Series the season after signing a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, that Philadelphia fanbase is a big reason why. he never regretted his choice to leave.

“They want you to go out there and bust your ass every day,” Harper said. “No excuses, good or bad. They don’t care. They just want you to keep doing it. And I love that mindset. My dad used to say the same thing when I was growing up . It doesn’t matter. ‘The next day, the next day, the next day, carry on, carry on, enjoy it, but carry on. And that’s how this town is.’

It can mean a lot of cheering, like during the NLDS, when the Phillies gave fans plenty to get excited about. But Philadelphia fans can be as brutal to struggling players as they can be uplifting to successful ones. Getting used to it takes time.

“I’m just beginning to understand that Philadelphia Phillies fans are extremely passionate right now,” Castellanos said. “I see it with the Eagles. Things are good, but if someone drops a safe touchdown, it rains boos like someone just kicked your dog. There’s good and bad in this passion, but when we ride, there’s more good than bad. It’s great.

Schwarber has played in front of passionate fans before — he made the playoffs with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs before coming to Philadelphia — but he said the feeling in Philly right now is special.

“Don’t offend any fan base as they are all amazing but this is by far the best split series I have ever seen on the pitch. How electric it was.”

As Harper added, “It’s great fun to be a part of it. Can’t wait until Friday night when we come back [from San Diego]. Of course, we are not going to look forward. We’ll take care of business on the west coast and come home and hope to have the same opportunity to do so again.”

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