PHILADELPHIA – On one Tuesday night in October at Citizens Bank Park, it felt like the Phillies could not possibly be stopped. On the next Tuesday night in October at Citizens Bank Park, their season came to an inconceivable end.
Any of the postseason magic that was left in South Philly evaporated entirely this week. The Phillies held a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series with two chances to clinch in their home ballpark, where they were previously 6-0 this October. In Games 6 and 7 of the NLCS against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the big moments never materialized for the home team.
As the outs piled up in Game 7, the mood among the crowd of 45,000-plus shifted from confident to angsty to distraught. The Phillies stars were striking out or making weak contact. The Snakes were singling, stealing and slithering their way to the National League pennant.
The Phillies' return trip to the World Series -- a foregone conclusion after going up 2-0 in the series with a 10-0 win in Game 2 last Tuesday -- was not meant to be.
The Phillies had plenty of memorable moments in 2023 and knocked out the 104-win rival Braves in an emotional NLDS. After their surprise run to the World Series in 2022, however, this October always felt like the destination mattered as much as the journey. The Phillies didn't get there.
"It's a frustrating way for the season to end, because the potential of this team is so much greater than going home before the World Series," right fielder Nick Castellanos said. "Last year, obviously, we were disappointed because we didn't win the whole thing. But there was a lot of 'all right, well, we got here.' Now we can build off of that. So knowing how we feel about this team and we came up short from what we did the year previous, it's a disgusting feeling, honestly."
The Phillies were 7-1 through their first eight games in the playoffs. They were smashing homers at historic rates, keeping their opponents off the scoreboard and getting. The Phillies might have had their ups and downs in the regular season, .
All they had to do to get back to the World Series was not lose four out of five games against an 84-win Diamondbacks team.
The hits weren't there. The Phillies scored 15 runs in the first two games of the series and just another 15 runs in the final five. They hit .197 as a team in Games 3-7. Trea Turner and Bryce Harper were 0 for 15 in Games 6 and 7 at home. They both harmlessly flew out in their final at-bats of their season with the tying run aboard in the seventh inning of Game 7. Castellanos went 0 for 23 to end the series after putting his name beside Reggie Jackson in the October record books.
The pitching went downhill, too. The Phillies had a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning of Game 3. Philadelphia pitchers not named Zack Wheeler had a 5.02 ERA from that point on in the series. Rob Thomson was no longer pressing the correct bullpen buttons, and Craig Kimbrel was charged with allowing the game-losing run in back-to-back games. Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez, for the first time this postseason, struggled with traffic on the bases and runners crossing the plate.
The Diamondbacks deserve plenty of credit. They were the more difficult team to deal with for the last five games. They found ways to win. But there was no good reason to think they were going to take this series after the first two games. Watching the Phillies morph from postseason juggernauts into a slumping mid-summer version of themselves was stunning.
"That's baseball," Thomson, the Phillies manager, said twice in separate answers while talking to reporters about the Game 7 loss. It's a statement that simultaneously is true and does not make it any easier for a fanbase to accept.
You can talk yourself into thinking a team is immune to that kind of baseball in October. But the bat spikes can always be celebratory one game and irate the next.
"It's very disappointing. It really is. I told the club if you asked me two days ago, two weeks ago, two months ago if we would be going home tonight, I would have said no," Thomson said. "So that's how much belief I have in this club. So it's very disappointing, but our clubhouse, those guys, they have nothing to be ashamed of because they played their asses off all year for us."
The belief was there until the very end. With Jake Cave – the unlikely final hitter in the Phillies season -- batting with two outs in the ninth inning and reality setting in among the crowd, some of the only claps in the ballpark came from the top railing of the Phillies dugout.
The Phillies have some offseason questions (mainly about Nola and Rhys Hoskins) to answer, but they figure to return much of the same core next season. Harper and Turner are set to be in Philly until the 2030s and are in their primes. The World Series contention window will stay propped open for the foreseeable future.
The belief will return in 2024, too. But after this series, even less will be taken for granted -- by players and fans.
"I know they're hurting," Harper said of the fans. "We are too. But we will be back."