PHILADELPHIA — The Phillies will take no one by surprise this October, and Tuesday’s series-opening win against the Marlins showed why.
Philadelphia looms as dangerously as any team playing in this Wild Card Series round because of how well-rounded its roster has become over the course of the 2023 season — an evolution it put on display in a comprehensive 4-1 victory over the Marlins in Game 1.
Zack Wheeler cruised into the seventh, with the help of some sharp defense behind him. Every Phillies starter picked up a hit, and rallies were sparked by the middle and bottom of the order. A formidable bullpen closed the door when Miami tried to sneak a peek in the late innings.
Where’s the weakness?
“We know what we’ve got,” Kyle Schwarber said. “We know we’ve got a good team.”
If one were to construct a criticism of Dave Dombrowski’s perennial playoff contenders in the past, be they in Detroit or Boston or playing on Broad Street just last year, it usually went like this: The rosters tended to be top-heavy, they often overlooked defensive fit, and the bullpen felt an arm short.
None of those deficiencies are applicable to this year’s Phillies.
Philadelphia’s Game 1 lineup made some concessions to defense, with Cristian Pache getting the nod in left field despite a September slump at the plate. He justified that decision on the third pitch of the game, using an excellent break to snag Luis Arraez’s leadoff line drive. Bryson Stott followed two batters later with a diving stop on the infield. What could have been two on with one out was instead a 1-2-3 inning for Wheeler.
Still, the bottom of the Phillies’ lineup didn’t suffer for the tradeoff. Johan Rojas, the No. 9 hitter, catalyzed the offense with a nine-pitch at-bat before a stinging single to left to open the third. By virtue of their run to the World Series last year, these Phillies have loads of October experience. Not Rojas, though, who mentioned postgame that he’d never even played in a minor-league playoff game before Tuesday night.
“I was so impressed by his first postseason at-bat to have off of a pitcher like that,” J.T. Realmuto said of Rojas. “Go up there, have a long at-bat and then hit a rocket.”
“He can impact the game in so many ways,” manager Rob Thomson said. “His poise level, since he’s been up here, has just been unbelievable for a young kid.”
Pache, hitting eighth, drove in Philadelphia’s third run of the night with a ground-ball single up the middle in the fourth.
“They’re themselves; that’s the best part about them,” Bryce Harper said of Rojas and Pache. “No moment’s too big for them.”
When Wheeler finally tired in the seventh, Thomson turned to José Alvarado, one of his horses from 2022. The last time Alvarado had pitched in the postseason, he replaced Wheeler and promptly served up Yordan Alvarez’s go-ahead home run in the World Series clincher for Houston. This time, he punched out pinch-hitter Yuli Gurriel with the tying runs in scoring position. An inning later, reliever Jeff Hoffman helped Alvarado escape trouble by inducing a Jorge Soler groundout.
Thomson had to lean so heavily on Alvarado — and Seranthony Domínguez and Zach Eflin — all October last year. This year, he has Alvarado, Hoffman, Domínguez, Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, Matt Strahm, and maybe even rookie Orion Kerkering as late-game options. It’s a bullpen built to survive the every-pitch-matters October grind.
“In my opinion, we have the best bullpen in the game,” Alvarado said through interpreter Diego Ettedgui. “It makes you feel pretty good about our chances.”
“That’s what you’re going to need when you’re in this spot,” Schwarber said of the pen.
Nick Castellanos didn’t hesitate to label this outfit better than the one that won three straight series without home-field advantage to claim the National League pennant in 2022. These Phillies have played to a 100-win pace since June 3. These Phillies don’t have to travel to four cities just to get to the National League Division Series. And these Phillies are better in part because of the guys who weren’t a part of those Phillies.
“It’s a very special team we have right now,” said Alvarado. “Overall, we’re really, really good.”
(Top photo of Johan Rojas scoring a run in the third inning: Bill Streicher / USA Today)