Before a raucous home crowd, Phillies grab upper hand on Padres in NLCS


PHILADELPHIA — There were any number of ways the Philadelphia Phillies could have blown a narrow lead in the late innings of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Friday night, but in the shared nightmares of their faithful fans, it would typically happen via some variation of the same calamity: a booted grounder, a botched flyball, an airmailed throw. In each version, a cathartic win becomes a gruesome loss.

So when the final out of the ninth inning settled safely into the glove of catcher J.T. Realmuto, denying the San Diego Padres a potential comeback with the tying run at the plate and sealing a 4-2 win for the Phillies, the roar that went up from a capacity crowd of 45,279 at Citizens Bank Park had a ribbon of relief cut into the ecstasy.

In the first NLCS game in Philadelphia in a decade, the Phillies rode a homer from leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber, five solid innings from starter Ranger Suarez and a six-out save from reliever Seranthony Dominguez — and survived their own defensive shortcomings — to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 4 is Saturday night.

While the Phillies went to great lengths this summer to shore up a defense that in the early months of the season was bordering on historically awful — raising its overall ability level to grudgingly acceptable — that defense still has enough holes to turn an occasional routine play into an adventure and a win into a loss.

It nearly happened Friday night, when errors by second baseman Jean Segura and first baseman Rhys Hoskins in the middle innings led to a pair of unearned runs. Segura would redeem his mistake with a two-run single in the fourth — when he poked a slider well off the plate into shallow right field — as well as a fine diving stop of a sharp grounder in the seventh. After each, Segura howled and flexed toward his dugout.

“I’ve waited 11 years for the opportunity,” said Segura, whose first 10 seasons in the majors failed to produce a playoff appearance. “I’m not going to let it go by.”

But for the rest of the evening’s proceedings, every routine play with the Phillies in the field would be accompanied by a collective, nervous inhale from the crowd.

“Physical mistakes are going to happen on the field, but good teams find a way to absorb those,” Hoskins said. “We have good players to do that. … I’m becoming less and less surprised with us coming up with big hits or just finding ways to win games that we don’t feel like were supposed to. It’s what we’ve done all year.”

The Phillies ended the regular season on a 10-game road trip, which turned into an 18-day odyssey once they clinched a wild-card spot and a best-of-three series in St. Louis. As Friday dawned, the Phillies had played exactly two home games in a span of 23 days. The players were so homesick they voted to fly home immediately after Wednesday’s game in San Diego rather than wait until Thursday’s travel day.

The cross-country move between Games 2 and 3 cost the series 35 degrees in air temperature but added about the same amount of heat as measured in intensity.

It had been loud at Petco Park but loud like a beach party. At Citizens Bank Park — where the Phillies are now 19-9 all-time in the postseason — it was loud like a tornado.

“Tonight was on a different level,” Hoskins said. “Deafening, loud — and constant. That adds up, especially for a road team.”

It took six pitches in the home half of the first inning for Citizens Bank Park to go from a constant, moderate buzz to a deafening roar. Schwarber, facing Padres starter Joe Musgrove to lead off the first, worked the count full, then unloaded on a 91-mph cutter, sending it 10 rows up in the right field bleachers. Schwarber, the NL’s home run champ this season, punctuated the blast with a modest bat flip.

The packed house booed the Padres throughout the pregame introductions. The crowd chanted Juan Soto’s last name with an alliterative vulgarity tacked to the end. They rose for big pitches, giving the impression of the walls closing in on the opposing pitcher. They chanted “Aaron’s better!” at Padres catcher Austin Nola, brother of Aaron, one of the Phillies’ best pitchers. They jeered Musgrove’s exit in the sixth and Jurickson Profar’s ejection in the ninth for arguing a check-swing third strike.

And the Phillies’ fans, upholding their hard-earned reputation, didn’t spare their own from the vitriol. Boos rained down after the costly errors on Segura and Hopkins. A dissatisfied groan would arise when a Phillies batter hit into a double play or struck out in a critical spot.

Given the possibility of a five-games-in-five-days gantlet, the Padres and Phillies both were desperate to get innings out of their starters Friday. Suarez, who had been battered in both his final regular season start and his lone start of this postseason, made it through five, surviving not only the Padres’ dangerous lineup but also his team’s leaky defense.

Phillies Manager Rob Thomson navigated the final 12 outs with just three relievers. Right-hander Zach Eflin handled the sixth and lefty Jose Alvarado the seventh. The final six outs fell to Dominguez, who became the first Phillies reliever to record a save of that length since Tug McGraw in the 1980 World Series.

Through three games, the Padres have been vexed by any number of ill-timed under-performances, but none have been as glaring as that of Soto in right field.

Acquired from the Washington Nationals in what was arguably the biggest trade-deadline deal in history, the young slugger has gone missing at the plate, hitting just .231 with a .584 on-base-plus-slugging percentage this postseason, including a 2-for-11 performance with four strikeouts and one walk in the NLCS. Despite consistently making hard contact — he leads all batters this postseason in balls struck at an exit velocity of 100 mph or higher and smashed a 113-mph grounder into the shift Friday night — he has yet to homer in these playoffs.

Looming over Friday’s game was the daunting reality of what awaits both teams the rest of this weekend and beyond. Game 3 was the first of up to five games on five consecutive days — with the traditional travel day between Games 5 and 6 having fallen victim to the condensed schedule made necessary by the lockout that pushed the start of the regular season back by a week.

Saturday’s Game 4 promises to be a glorified bullpen game for both sides — with the de facto starters, San Diego’s Mike Clevinger and Philadelphia’s Bailey Falter, likely to get just one turn through the opposing lineup — and reliever usage over the next few days will be scrutinized even closer than usual.

But the Phillies can win pretty — as they did behind ace Zack Wheeler in Game 1 — and they can win ugly, as they showed again Friday night. And if they win Saturday, they will show up again at Citizens Bank Park on Sunday, probably with Wheeler on the mound, to play for a berth in the World Series.

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