PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES SLUGGER Bryce Harper didn’t quite get his birthday wish.
All season long, Harper had said he wanted to still be playing on his 30th birthday, which was on Sunday. That day came and went without the Phillies on the field — 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’ll face the Padres on Tuesday night in Game 1 of an unlikely NL Championship Series between two teams that entered the postseason as the league’s No. 5 and 6 seeds.
It wasn’t an easy journey for a Phillies team that, in five short months, went from an under-.500 team riddled by injuries to a serious playoff contender.
But Harper — who was sidelined himself for two months with a broken thumb — never lost faith in his team.
“He said, ‘We ain’t losing,'” Philadelphia first baseman Rhys Hoskins recalled after the Phillies’ series-clinching win over the visiting Braves on Saturday. “He’s been saying it since the first day in St. Louis [during the wild card series]. I think it’s the belief that he has in us. It’s the belief we have in each other.”
LIKE MOST POSTSEASON TEAMS, that belief began for Philadelphia in spring training. But even the Phillies might admit that it waned early in 2022.
During spring training, the Phillies figured they’d overcome any defensive woes with a potent offense. But the team got off to a rocky start, dropping to 22-29 on June 1 under veteran manager Joe Girardi. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski sensed the Phillies needed a change. The Phillies were built to win now but were doing anything but.
“Sometimes, when you make a change in leadership. you get just a little 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 needed, although it’s hard even for the Philly players to put their fingers on what wasn’t working. One player summed it up this way: “A clubhouse is a living organism. And it just was not breathing right.”
The Phillies promoted popular bench coach Rob Thomson and, seemingly in an instant, everything was different. They won their first eight games under Thomson, vaulting over .500 for the first time since the opening week of the season.
Philadelphia found its mojo.
“We started playing exactly the way we thought we were going to play coming out of spring training,” Thomson said. “It just sort of all came together, right at that spot. I don’t think it had anything to do with me. It just started to click.”
But if you ask his players, the change in culture had everything to do with Thomson.
“It did,” Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos said during Saturday’s champagne-soaked NLDS victory celebration. “We didn’t have everyone feeling the best versions of themselves, and when Thomson was able to come in, with no pressure on him, he just went out and let baseball be played.”
As Dombrowski added, “Thomson might be a little bit 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 the NL East; but with the expanded postseason, they knew they still had a chance at playing in October. And they had an undying belief they were better than their record was telling everyone. Slowly, that record caught up to their mindset.
“This is being honest: I think we all [believed] coming out of spring training because we knew we had a good ballclub,” Thomson said. “We knew our bullpen was good, rotation was good, we had great offense. We just got off to a little bit of a slow start and kind of spiraled.”
Then came the managerial change. The team went 65-46 over the remainder of the regular season — and, sure enough, made the postseason for the first time since 2011.
“The sweetest thing about all this is no one really knows what this team has gone through unless you were here every single day,” left fielder Kyle Schwarber said. “To see this whole team come together, it gives me goose bumps.”
THERE’S A HUNGER among fans in Philadelphia — where a loyal base hadn’t previously seen playoff baseball in a decade — that is appreciated throughout the Phillies organization.
“And I’m getting chills because it fires me up, man. It makes me want to win that much more,” Harper said. “And when they show out for us like that, it makes our team that much better.”
Even after Harper watched his former team, the Washington Nationals, win the World Series the season after he signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Phillies, that Philadelphia fan base is a big reason he never regretted his choice to leave.
“They want you to go out there and bust your ass each 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. ‘Next day, next day, next day, keep going, keep going, enjoy it, but keep going.’ And that’s how this city is.”
That can mean plenty of cheers, like during the NLDS, when the Phillies gave fans plenty of reasons to get excited. But fans in Philly can be as brutal on struggling players as they can be uplifting to those who succeed. Getting used to them takes time.
“I’m just beginning to understand that Philadelphia Phillies fans are extremely passionate in the moment,” Castellanos said. “I see it with the Eagles. Things are going great, but if someone drops a sure-handed touchdown, they’re raining boos like someone just kicked your dog. There’s good and bad in that passion, but when we’re rolling, there’s more good than bad. It’s awesome.”
Schwarber has played in front of passionate fan bases 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.
“No offense to any fan base, because they’re all amazing, but this, by far, is the best division series I’ve ever seen on the home field. Just how electric it was.”
As Harper added, “It’s a lot of fun to be a part of it. I can’t wait until Friday night when we get back [from San Diego]. Of course, we’re not going to look ahead. We’ll take care of business on the West Coast and come home and hopefully have that same opportunity to do this again.”