Seventeen days ago, the Phillies got swept out of Chicago a few hours before the San Diego Padres lost for the fourth time in seven games. And in that moment, it was difficult to tell which team looked less like it actually wanted to make the playoffs.
Yet here they are, the last two entrants into the tournament, getting set to square off in the National League Championship Series.
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The Phillies went 87-75 and punched a ticket to their first NLCS since 2010 by dispatching the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves in four games in the divisional round. The Padres, 89-73 in the regular season, will play for the pennant for the first time since 1998 after defeating the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers.
Story lines abound, and there are only two days to digest them. Game 1 is Tuesday night in San Diego, so let’s get right to it.
Prepare to see a lot of the Nola family over the next week.
AJ and Stacie Nola have two sons. Austin is the Padres catcher, Aaron the Phillies co-ace. Austin is four years older, but Aaron beat his brother to the majors by four years. When Austin made his debut in 2019, Aaron said, “I think I was happier for him getting called up than I was when I got called up, to be honest with you.”
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The Nola boys faced each other for the first time in 2021 and again in June, with AJ wearing both a Phillies and Padres jersey. Austin has one hit and one walk in six plate appearances against Aaron, who has two strikeouts. Now, they will be the first brothers to meet in LCS play since the Alomars (Roberto and Sandy Jr.) in 1997.
Loser has to host Thanksgiving?
It was the dominant local baseball story during the “Stupid Money” offseason of 2018-19 — Should the Phillies sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado? — and it dragged on for four months.
Machado memorably visited Citizens Bank Park on Dec. 20, 2018, and was stopped on Pattison Avenue by a construction worker who pointed to Lincoln Financial Field and said, “Super Bowl champs! World Series here. Do the right thing and sign! Get the money!”
Eventually, Machado grabbed a 10-year, $300 million deal from the Padres before Phillies owner John Middleton offered up a 13-year, $330 million contract for Harper. Four years later, neither team can complain about the return on their investment.
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Harper’s numbers with the Phillies: .282/.394/.546 (.940 OPS), 101 homers, 14.7 bWAR in 455 games. He won his second NL MVP award, his first with the Phillies, last season.
Machado’s numbers with the Padres: .280/.352/.504 (.855 OPS), 108 homers, 17.6 bWAR in 519 games. He’s an MVP candidate this year.
Given their coinciding free agencies, they are inextricably linked. Having led their playoff-starved teams deep into October, it’s only fitting that they square off now for the pennant.
In authoring an improbable Phillies comeback June 7 in Milwaukee, Alec Bohm and Matt Vierling hit solo home runs against Josh Hader, who hadn’t given up a run in 40 consecutive appearances, tied for the major-league record.
And for a while, it seemed like maybe they broke him.
Beginning with that game, Hader gave up 16 runs in a span of 14⅓ innings before getting traded to the Padres. In his first seven outings for San Diego, he posted a 23.14 ERA.
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But Hader is back to dominating again. The left-hander did not allow an earned run in his final 10 regular-season appearances and has struck out seven of 15 batters in the postseason, including Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, and Freddie Freeman in the ninth inning of the clincher against the Dodgers.
Can the Phillies climb back into his head and steal a game in the series?
Both teams are anchored by their starting rotations.
The Phillies have Zack Wheeler, Nola, and likely Ranger Suárez lined up to start the first three games, while the Padres figure to counter with Yu Darvish, lefty Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. It will mark the Phillies’ first time seeing Snell since he broke Harper’s thumb with a wayward fastball on June 25.
» READ MORE: JT Realmuto waited his entire career to reach the playoffs. He finally had his October moment.
There are other similarities between the teams. Both have stars in the middle of the order (Harper and JT Realmuto vs. Machado and Juan Soto). After difficult regular seasons, Padres center fielder Trent Grisham and Phillies counterpart Brandon Marsh are having breakthroughs in the playoffs. Grisham is 8-for-21 with three homers; Marsh is 4-for-13 with one homer.
Kyle Schwarber helped the Chicago Cubs break their 108-year World Series hex in 2016 and went to the playoffs with the Boston Red Sox last year. He has been to the playoffs in seven of his eight seasons. But the Phillies leadoff hitter was duly impressed by the decibel levels of the sold-out crowds at Citizens Bank Park for Games 3 and 4 against the Braves.
“No offense to any fan base because they’re all amazing,” Schwarber said, “but this is by far the best Division Series I’ve ever seen at a home field, just how electric it was. [The fans] are in tune with every single pitch in every big spot. It was just electric.”
That’s what happens when fans don’t get to experience playoff baseball for 11 years.
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In San Diego, it had been 15 years. The Padres made the playoffs in 2020 but Petco Park was empty because of the pandemic. So, when they returned home for Games 3 and 4 of the divisional series against the Dodgers, the ballpark was rocking, with sights and sounds that resembled what was happening in South Philly.
The Padres have never won a World Series and haven’t made an appearance since 1998. The Phillies haven’t won it since 2008 or been there since 2009. The atmosphere in both ballparks figures to be supercharged.