NLCS: Bryce Harper leads Phillies to World Series

PHILADELPHIA — The Philadelphia Phillies had gambled away a lead, falling on their last six outs and facing a five-and-a-half-hour flight back to San Diego for Game 6 of this National League Championship Series at JT Realmuto cracked a single to close the eighth inning Sunday night begin, and made Bryce Harper hit.

Upstairs in the general manager’s suite, Dave Dombrowski looked at his son Landon, a recent graduate of Wake Forest University, and brought up a name from the past that still haunts him at times.

“Landon, this is a situation where Big Daddy would have gone home,” Dombrowski, who has been in baseball for four decades, told his son, referring to Boston legend David Ortiz. “Legends are made here. If Bryce meets one here, this place will go wild.”

Seven pitches and four fouls later, Harper ripped into a sinker that didn’t sink the way San Diego right-hander Robert Suarez intended. Instead, it hung in the strike zone, belt up, over the outer third of the plate. It was a field Harper could drive, so he reached out and screeched, sending it the opposite direction, over the left field fence.

It was an incredible moment for the man, who signed a 13-year, $330 million contract ahead of the 2019 season to produce some incredible moments in Philadelphia. But even that, which yielded a 4-3 Phillies series wire winner and secured the club’s eighth National League pennant, was beyond the wildest imagination.

“I think maybe I underpaid him,” said John Middleton, the Phillies’ principal owner, as a crowd of players, staff, family and friends celebrated the feat in Citizens Bank Park’s infield after the Padres were sent home. “I told him that tonight.”

That wasn’t all Middleton told Harper.

“I told him this was a fairy tale,” Middleton said. “I looked at where we are in the lineup at the bottom of eighth and said we have JT followed by Bryce. I said to myself we have two guys who can draw and win this game. JT got the hit with two strikes and then Bryce stepped forward.”

The Phillies have not played in a World Series since 2009. Harper, who debuted in 2012, never made the World Series.

Together they will do so on Friday when the 118th World Series gets underway in the home of the American League city. As the Phillies celebrated, they assumed it would be Houston who had a stranglehold on the Yankees by winning the first three games of their series.

What happened in Philadelphia on a cold, windy, rainy Sunday night in late October was no fairy tale. But beginning with the 45,485 fans who packed the stadium and stretching across the city, as the years go by it will seem like a fairy tale as the exploits of this ball club are told. And the stories will begin tonight.

The Phillies were keen to climb the pennant in front of their own fans and avoid the long flight west. In the third inning, the Phillies went 2-0 when Rhys Hoskins did what he’d done twice the night before: He hit a two-run homer, that one from San Diego starter Yu Darvish.

The lead looked solid, especially with Philadelphia having right-hander Zack Wheeler on the mound. Wheeler had pitched 28⅔ consecutive scoreless innings against the Padres combining regular and postseason, dating back to July 24, 2018. It was the longest current streak in the majors from a starting pitcher against a single opponent.

It was more of the same thing in Game 5, knocking out the first 10 Padres he faced, five of them on strikeouts. But Juan Soto, who had mostly disappointed since taking over in a blockbuster trade Aug. 2 with the Washington Nationals in San Diego, touched him for a one-off solo homer in the fourth to cut the Phillies’ lead to 2-1 .

But when it rained steadily in the late innings and dominant right-hander Seranthony Domínguez replaced Wheeler, the game almost went unnoticed. Domínguez threw three wild pitches that sparked a two-run inning in San Diego and allowed the Padres to forge a 3-2 lead.

The Phillies charter flight was warmer.

Then came Harper.

“When he hit the ball and he went out, I didn’t think it was hard enough in this weather with the cold, the wind and the rain,” Middleton said. “And then it just kept going and I said go go go!”

Realmuto’s base hit was key to the inning, Harper said.

“I knew if I hit the ball in the gap or something, JT would score,” he said. “So I wasn’t trying to do too much in that situation at all. I took my chances early in the at-bat and I was like, ‘Okay, here we go. What do I have to do to either just bring him over or get this job done?’”

Upstairs in the suite where the Phillies had lodged their alumni for the night, one of the stars of their 2008 World Series title run couldn’t believe what he was seeing even before Harper entered. After noticing flame-throwing left-hander Josh Hader as Jayson Werth warmed up in the San Diego bullpen, he couldn’t believe Hader wasn’t called upon to face left-handed Harper.

“I looked at my wife Julie and said, ‘This game is over,'” Werth said.

Ryan Howard, the retired hitter, and Charlie Manuel, the popular manager of that last legendary Phillies team, were in the suite with Werth. And when the Phillies came back and the rain fell and the wind swept, some special memories came back as the special new memories were penned.

At one point, Werth said he walked up to Manuel and Howard, recalled the rainy and cold conditions when the Phillies beat Tampa Bay in the 2008 World Series, and asked, “Do you get any kind of deja vu? Behind the second base is water, behind the first base is a puddle. It wasn’t even a tenth of what it was in 2008, but it was starting. Do you remember how much water there used to be in the field?”

A decade ago, in another championship series, Dombrowski experienced a similar home run that broke his heart. Then Detroit head baseball man Dombrowski and the Tigers were at Fenway Park looking to take a 2-0 lead in the series when Ortiz hit a series-changing grand slam in the eighth inning and carried Boston to victory. A Tiger team that included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez somehow failed not only to win a World Series, but to actually make it.

There are no predictions about the postseason’s sharp turns. Dombrowski stressed Sunday that he would never be brave enough to predict a home run in the situation Harper found himself in another eighth inning more than a decade after Ortiz.

But when he hit it, “we were jumping up and down the suite high fives and really didn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Dombrowski continued, “There are very few people who are facing up to this situation. You can do it in special moments. And that was it.”

The connection to Philadelphia’s 2008 title had a different view.

“You win a World Series and Bryce does that a few more times, that’s how you get a statue,” Werth said. “And they don’t give out statues that easily, right? You can put your name on the stadium, you can have your number removed, but statues don’t come easy at all.”

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