Philadelphia Phillies always had momentum on their side in wild-card trouncing of Miami Marlins

PHILADELPHIA – Bryson Stott doesn’t remember slamming his bat on the ground as he trotted down the base path, bellowing toward the dugout. The Phillies’ second baseman learned that he had just authored the kind of iconic moment — and emphatic celebration thereof — that instantly enters the annals of Philadelphia sports lore from Garrett Stubbs, the backup catcher and first-string hype man.

“I don’t usually pimp home runs,” Stott said later, when the smell of cigar smoke trailed him into the interview room. “I don’t think I hit them far enough to do that.”

This time, he did, driving a fastball 412 feet to right-center. But it was the circumstance, not the size, of the blast that made it so memorable (to everyone except Stott, that is): A grand slam in the sixth inning Wednesday to give the Phillies a seven-run lead in what would ultimately be a 7-1 victory over the Miami Marlins to win the wild-card series.

The reigning NL pennant winners — who went from wild card to World Series a year ago this month — will now head to Atlanta to take on the Braves, the best team in baseball this year.

The grand slam was an exclamation point on an easy sweep, a moment for the front pages of the paper, the crescendo of a highlight reel attesting to how these Phillies are, at once, the same rollicking gang of good vibes from last year and also better. Last postseason, Stott couldn’t catch up to the fastball. Later, looking back, he realized that the extra month of games simply wore him down, and he committed to spending more time in the weight room until he was ready for however long this season stretched. So far, that’s paying off.

Now, when they dance, the music is no surprise, and the Phillies know the moves. If you let the bedlam that followed wash over you, a grand slam from a team that never once trailed in the series makes it feel like the Phillies are on a collision course with rewriting how 2022 ended.

But let’s go back to when Game 2 was still 0-0. Even if the matchup vs. Miami seemed mismatched from the outset, short series are full of upsets. The Fish just needed to get on the board. And in the top of the third, Jon Berti doubled. Last year, he led MLB in stolen bases. This season, new rules have made steals easier than ever to come by. A good jump, and Berti could be 90 feet from giving the Marlins an early lead.

On the mound, Phillies starter and stalwart Aaron Nola noticed Berti looking eager to go. A glance back toward home induced him to get a jump, and Nola was able to easily pick him off. Suddenly, instead of one out with a runner on second, it was two outs with no one on and the nine-hole hitter at the plate.

“It was huge,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said postgame. “I thought that that really stopped some momentum right there in its tracks.”

The next half-inning, the Phillies scored twice to take a lead they never lost. If the Marlins did have some momentum building, they never got it back.

The best-of-three wild-card series is a new and unusual beast in baseball. The cadence can be disorienting. What looks from the outset like a series suddenly transforms into something closer to a do-or-die cage match as soon as the first team scores. The beginning of the postseason lurches right to the brink of elimination for four teams that were celebrating their opportunity only days before.

The irony, of course, is that for six months, most baseball series are three games. It is, in fact, a very normal number of games for two teams to play against each other. Which is why it feels so notable that in 16 three-game wild-card series (eight in 2020, four in 2022 and four this year), there have been 13 sweeps. In the regular season, teams drop the first game only to win the next two all the time. The Marlins did it six times this season. Twice they did it against the Phillies, including once right here in the same hostile ballpark.

One of the most often opined and researched elements of the postseason is whether momentum matters — indeed, whether it is even real. The statistical explorations into the subject tend to consider whether a team’s or player’s performance down the stretch carries into the postseason. (Spoiler: not really.)

Harder to measure, I have to assume, is how it felt like the Marlins barely ever had a chance Wednesday. More confident fans might’ve said it was a foregone conclusion after the Phillies took the first game. Or even before that — when the Phillies prepared to face a lineup that scored 130 fewer runs in the regular season or when the Phillies lined up a pair of starters whom opposing manager Skip Schumaker said could be the best one-two punch in the game.

Even so, the Marlins could’ve fought back, except that they never built up any momentum. A budding rally cut down on the basepaths turned into just another quiet inning for Nola — an impending free agent who threw seven scoreless in what might’ve been the best start of a rocky season and, in doing so, ensured that it would not be his last in a Phillies uniform.

By the time Stott hit the grand slam — after Cristian Pache and Kyle Schwarber scored, after J.T. Realmuto hit a solo shot, but before 22-year-old Orion Kerkering made his first playoff appearance out of the bullpen in a season he started in Single-A — it felt less like a contest and more like a party. A chance for a couple of sold-out crowds to holler themselves hoarse to remind their guys what they’ll be coming home to after a couple of games in Atlanta.

What Stott remembered, instead of the swing or the spike or the feeling of rounding the bases, was the deafening noise that accompanied the moment.

“I know I yelled at the dugout and couldn’t really hear myself,” he said. “So I knew the crowd was loud.”

Maybe momentum isn’t real if you try to separate the on-field results from the sensory experience. After their team wins the first game in a regular-season series, fans don’t pour their hearts and souls into booing the opposition from lineup introduction through ninth-inning at-bats. They don’t pack the ballpark midweek or sing a player’s walk-up song back to him after he hits a home run. They sit down once in a while.

Maybe even more than the results of September, that’s what creates momentum.

“You don’t get it every other place like you do here,” Nola said — and if you listened for it, he sounded wistful. “It’s pretty cool. It’s pretty special.”

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