Game 7. According to many, those are the two most exciting words in sports. For the Philadelphia Phillies, Game 7 was uncharted territory. At least until last Tuesday night.
In the franchise’s 140-year existence, Game 7 of the 2023 National League Championship Series was the first Game 7 it has ever participated in. While a few players, plus the team’s manager, Rob Thomson, had hands-on experience in such a game before, most Phillies were inexperienced in a winner-take-all scenario like this one.
After the Phillies lost Game 6 of the NLCS to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a few players spoke about having to play a seventh game. They seemed excited and ready to go.
Kyle Schwarber, a player with previous Game 7 experience, said, “[Game 7] is gonna be a really exciting baseball game because anything goes. It’s exciting… It’s gonna be fun.” Right fielder Nick Castellanos relayed the same sentiment, “Sounds like a lot of fun,” he said. “What a great opportunity.”
The excitement didn’t last that long, though. It wasn’t fun, either. And the great opportunity? Well, it turned into a missed one.
After dropping Game 6, the Phillies also lost Game 7 a little more than 24 hours later, ending their 2023 season. There’s no one thing, or player, that should take all the blame. In the end, multiple things went wrong more than they went right. Things went wrong at the worst times possible.
At a glance, the Phillies had really good pitching during their 13 playoff games. As a staff, they posted a 2.20 ERA in 114 1/3 innings, both tops in their respective categories this postseason.
But, at the worst times possible, the bullpen, which had a 2.23 ERA in 44 1/3 postseason innings, blew up. And Aaron Nola, who finished his 2023 postseason with a 2.35 ERA in four starts, was ineffective in his Game 6 outing.
First, it was the bullpen. In Game 3 against Arizona, Philadelphia had a one-run lead after seven-and-a-half innings. Rookie Orion Kerkering was trusted with the bottom of the seventh to protect the lead. He gave up a single to Tommy Pham and a double to Lourdes Gurriel Jr. that tied the game. Two innings later, Craig Kimbrel faced five hitters in the home half of the ninth of a 1-1 game. He walked two of those hitters and allowed two others to record hits. The second hit was a single by Ketel Marte that walked things off for the D-Backs.
The following night, a combination of left-hander Gregory Soto, Kerkering, and Kimbrel were the main culprits in a 6-5 loss in a game the Phillies had a 5-2 lead in after seven-and-a-half innings.
In the bottom of the seventh of Game 4, Soto faced three batters. Two reached base safely and he was pulled. Then Kerkering walked back-to-back hitters, the second of which was with the bases loaded, allowing a run to score, before getting out of the inning.
Game 4 was 5-3 Phillies after seven.
Kimbrel then came in to start the eighth. He gave up a game-tying, two-run home run to second-year outfielder Alek Thomas three batters into his outing.
The next three at-bats handled by the veteran reliever went as follows: strikeout, single, hit by pitch. Kimbrel was then removed from the game in favor of the hard-throwing José Alvarado, who gave up a one-run single that gave Arizona a 6-5 lead.
Two games later, Nola wasn’t sharp, either. The 30-year-old right-hander gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings in his club’s Game 6 loss. Two of the six hits he gave up were home runs. After looking sharp in his first three October starts, Nola looked dull in his fourth, and final, outing.
The series wasn’t lost because of the Phillies pitching, though. For the most part, their pitching staff was really good. However, they were imperfect at the worst times possible.
Then The Bats Went Quiet
Just like the team’s collection of pitchers, their collection of hitters didn’t perform well when they needed it most.
After taking a 3-2 series lead with a Game 5 win, the Phillies were in prime position to take the series. They only needed to win one of a possible two games at their home ballpark to clinch their second consecutive NL pennant.
Historically, Citizens Bank Park has been kind to the Phillies in the postseason. This current group has had great offensive success in October at CBP over the last two years. But in Games 6 and 7 of this year’s NLCS, their bats went quiet.
The Phillies slugged 10 homers in the series’ first five games. They hit one, a solo homer by Alec Bohm in Game 7, in the last two games of the series. The club’s big bats — Schwarber, Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Castellanos — didn’t step up.
Five of those previously mentioned 10 homers between Games 1 and 5 were hit by Schwarber. Arizona didn’t let him beat them after that. The Snakes also rarely gave Harper an opportunity to beat them throughout the series.
Overall, the combination of Schwarber, Turner, Harper, Realmuto, and Castellanos went 3-for-36 between Games 6 and 7 with four walks, 14 strikeouts, and no home runs. They came up to the plate with runners on and didn’t deliver.
As a team, the Phillies went 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position in the final two games of this year’s NLCS. As a whole, they went 12-for-51. That’s a .235 batting average, 24 points lower than their .259 average with runners in scoring position during the regular season. Five of those 12 hits came in Game 2 when the Phillies went 5-for-7 with ducks on the pond. Outside of Game 2, they went 7-for-44 (.159).
Struggling with runners in scoring position wasn’t new during the NLCS, though. The Phillies went 5-for-23 in the Wild Card Series and 7-for-32 in the Division Series in such situations.
In total, they went 24-for-106 with runners in scoring position during the postseason, “good” for a .226 average.
Those complications were masked by the club’s home run power which was on full display at times. They went yard 24 times this postseason in 13 games. When they hit them, they hit them in bunches, too.
Of their 13 games, Philadelphia hit a home run in 10 of them. Of those 10 games, six were multi-home run performances.
What can be concluded from that? The Phillies lived and died with the long ball this postseason, especially in the NLCS.
Home runs are great. They’re even better in the postseason. We’ve all seen the numbers. The teams who out-homer their opponents tend to win in the playoffs. But while home runs are great, teams also need to settle for base hits at times, specifically with runners in scoring position. That’s something the Phillies weren’t able to do throughout the playoffs and it bit them in the final two games of the NLCS.
The Phillies bats were hot this postseason. And then they weren’t. The club’s big boppers went quiet when they needed them to be loud.
There was a lot that happened in the NLCS. Philadelphia’s pitchers weren’t at their best when they needed it. The bats, mainly the big ones, went quiet at the end. The Phillies lost the series.
So, as the title of this article asks… what’s next?
While the front office and coaching staff begin their assessments of the season and begin to look towards the offseason, the players will have to come to terms with their season ending the way it did.
“It’s a frustrating way for the season to end,” Castellanos said postgame. “The potential of this team is so much greater than going home before the World Series.”
The players will process this year and will one day move on. Most of them will be back in 2024. There are a few whose futures are up in the air, though.
Kimbrel and trade deadline acquisition Michael Lorenzen are scheduled to be free agents. Kimbrel signed a one-year, $10 million contract with the Phillies last winter. While he struggled in Games 3 and 4 of the NLCS, his year with the Phillies wasn’t horrible. He was an All-Star. He will probably end up elsewhere next season, however.
Lorenzen’s fate is likely the same. He was an All-Star this year, too, for his first-half efforts with the Detroit Tigers. But after his first two starts in red pinstripes, the second being a no-hitter, he struggled in a big way. The right-hander probably lands with another team this winter.
Then there’s Nola and Rhys Hoskins, both of whom were selected by the Phillies in the 2014 draft. As they made their way through Philadelphia’s minor-league system and began to showcase their talents in the majors, Nola and Hoskins were looked at as key pieces that could one day help the Phillies break a very long playoff drought. And they were.
Hoskins remaining a Phillie seems less likely than Nola’s chances of doing so. The first baseman tore his ACL late in spring training and never took an at-bat for the Phillies this year. His market will be interesting this winter. With how Philadelphia lined up towards the end of the regular season, and in the postseason, it’s hard to find a spot where Hoskins fits.
The outfield combination of Brandon Marsh, Johan Rojas, and Castellanos with Schwarber DH’ing worked out really well. Harper playing first base worked, too. If Harper is okay with staying at first and doesn’t want to return to the outfield — something that would make things very interesting for the Phillies’ defensive alignment in 2024 — Hoskins doesn’t really fit anywhere in the lineup.
As for Nola, his 2023 regular season wasn’t what he hoped it would be. In 32 regular season starts, he posted a 4.46 ERA while surrendering a career-high 32 home runs. Despite those numbers, he’s going to be a sought-after pitcher this winter. The right-hander is durable and is a league-average pitcher at worst. There’s value in that.
Not too long ago, it was reported the Phillies and Nola were far off in contract negotiations when they were discussing a new deal during spring training. The Phillies were reportedly offering a four- or five-year deal, while Nola’s camp was asking for an eight-year contract worth north of $200 million.
Nola is important to the Phillies. He’s been the club’s co-ace alongside Zack Wheeler over the last four seasons. The one-two punch of Wheeler-Nola in a playoff series has been on full display each of the last two postseasons. It’s clearly a good one.
How important the organization sees Nola is something we’ll eventually find out. There’s a deal to be made to keep one of the organization’s most accomplished homegrown pitchers right where he is. It’s just a matter of if the front office wants to make that deal.
As for how the player feels, when asked about his future after Game 7, Nola said he hopes to stay with the Phillies, but he understands there’s a business side to it.
It’s a long offseason ahead for the Phillies. There are moves, mostly minor, that will happen. The future of Nola and Hoskins are the two biggest storylines heading into it.
It won’t only be long because of its actual length — it’s about four months until pitchers and catchers report to spring training — but also because of how the season ended. A 2-0 series lead in the NLCS slowly turned into a 4-3 series defeat.
“…It is disappointing,” Thomson said after Game 7. “But it’s tough to get back to this position two years in a row… [The players] fought like hell to get here, and we came up short. That’s baseball sometimes.”
That is baseball sometimes. The season is a day-to-day, six-month grind and the postseason is even more than a grind at times. It’s hard to win. This Phillies team seemed positioned to do just that. It just wasn’t in the cards.
Maybe next year.
Featured Photo: X (Twitter) / @PhilliesCBP