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PHILADELPHIA — Into the cold and drizzle of a deep autumn Philadelphia evening there suddenly came a warm, heavenly glow that passed through Citizens Bank Park and its 45,485 ecstatic witnesses. Flying through that mist, barely airborne long enough to get wet, was a rocket-launched baseball bound for the bleachers in left-center field. On the earth below, Bryce Harper stood briefly to admire it, then dropped his bat, ducked his head and began the most satisfying 360-foot jog of his life.
It was a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series on Sunday, and it sent the Philadelphia Phillies to a 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres and a berth in the World Series, this franchise’s first since 2009. The Houston Astros or New York Yankees await.
The blast was Harper’s fifth of the postseason. At this point, he is as close to an approximation of 1928 Babe Ruth or 1977 Reggie Jackson as baseball has seen in recent Octobers. He is hitting .419 with a 1.351 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He is the center of the Phillies’ universe, his gravity like that of a thousand suns.
When lefty Ranger Suárez retired Padres catcher Austin Nola on a flyball to right to end the top of the ninth — a hairy half-inning in which right-hander David Robertson was pulled after issuing back-to-back one-out walks — the Phillies threw their gloves in the air and converged at the center of the diamond to convene a victory party certain to rage deep into the night.
The Philadelphia Phillies advanced to the World Series on the back of Bryce Harper’s two-run homer, beating the San Diego Padres 4-3 on Oct. 23. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
Svrluga: Bryce Harper lives for the spotlight. Now he’s owning October.
“We’ve got four more!” Harper shouted to a raucous crowd from the stage erected beyond second base, where he was presented the NLCS MVP trophy. He was referring to the number of wins remaining to secure the championship. “We’re going to bring this [expletive] home, boys!”
In the Phillies’ victorious clubhouse, the first bottles of champagne were directed toward the ungoggled face of Manager Rob Thomson, who took over for the fired Joe Girardi in early June, when the team had a 22-29 record, and led them to a 65-46 record the rest of the way.
“It’s special for me personally,” said Thomson, a rookie major league manager but a veteran of 37 seasons in professional baseball. “But there are so many guys on this club who had never even been to the playoffs [before this year]. … I’m probably more happy for them than for anybody else.”
Those 87 regular season wins were good enough for the Phillies to sneak into the postseason as the sixth seed — a prize that didn’t even exist until this year’s playoff expansion. But they have transformed into a juggernaut in the postseason, blitzing three teams — the St. Louis Cardinals, the Atlanta Braves and now the Padres — that outpaced them collectively by 22 games in the regular season standings. In three rounds, they are 9-2, including 5-0 at home.
“You could see us grow together, always with the feeling that if we got in … we’d have a chance to contend,” said President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski, who is looking for a third World Series title to go with the ones he won with the Florida Marlins in 1997 and the Boston Red Sox in 2018. “Our stars have stepped up.”
The Phillies held a slim lead for much of the game, constructed upon Rhys Hoskins’s two-run homer in the third and six-plus outstanding innings from ace Zack Wheeler. But carrying that lead home would prove a harrowing task, owing to the Padres’ resilience and the deteriorating elements.
Much of the game was played in a light rain and a steady wind, cloaking the downtown skyline in the distance in a spooky blanket of haze. Beyond straightaway center, between the Stars and Stripes and a giant LED Liberty Bell that lights up after Phillies homers and wins, there were a pair of red flags flapping in the blustery wind — representing the only World Series titles in franchise history, from 1980 and 2008.
But the rain picked up and the field grew muddy in the top of the seventh, when the Padres scored a pair of runs to seize a 3-2 lead. The go-ahead run scored on the third wild pitch of the inning by Phillies reliever Seranthony Domínguez — equaling the number of wild pitches he threw in the entire regular season, spanning 51 innings.
The tying run, charged to Wheeler, scored on an RBI by Padres designated hitter Josh Bell, who laced a double to right off Domínguez. Pinch runner José Azocar took third and then home on the second and third of Domínguez’s wild pitches. Suddenly, the Padres led by a run.
Major League Baseball took a gamble by even attempting to play Sunday, with the forecast calling for light rain and a narrow window in which to cram a game. Because the postseason schedule was condensed — fallout from the owners’ lockout, which delayed the start of the season — the traditional travel day between Games 5 and 6 of the championship series was wiped out. Had the Padres won Sunday, the teams would have reconvened in San Diego on Monday night. A rainout Sunday would have thrown the rest of the postseason schedule into chaos.
In a sense, Harper’s homer — on a 99-mph sinker from the Padres’ Robert Suarez — took MLB off the hook for what was sure to be a much-scrutinized decision to play through the stiffer rain in the seventh inning.
When Harper strode to the plate, with J.T. Realmuto on first base after a single, a strange calmness descended upon Citizens Bank Park, as if the outcome were preordained. The Padres may have contributed to that sense by not bringing in Josh Hader, arguably the most unhittable reliever in the game, and instead sticking with Suarez, who was in his second inning of work.
“At that point in time,” Manager Bob Melvin said, “I had confidence in Suarez.”
Harper, too, reacted like someone who had expected to do exactly what he did. He has celebrated other big hits with wild gestures and howls, as he did after his second RBI double in Saturday night’s Game 4. Here, he looked into his dugout, pointed to the word scrawled across his chest — Phillies — and started his jog.
“No matter who was on the mound, No. 3 is made for that type of moment,” Hoskins said. “And he did it again. None of us were surprised.”
Spring was miserable for the Phillies, who went two months without seeing the sunny side of .500 and got their manager fired. Summer started with a roar and ended with a fizzle, the Phillies providing little evidence they could survive the postseason gantlet that awaited.
But autumn? Autumn has been incredible for these Phillies. And thanks in large part to Harper’s scorching bat, it will stretch on a bit longer than anyone here could have imagined just a few weeks ago.