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October 16, 2023

Instant observations: Early home runs, Wheeler gem give Phillies another series lead

The Phillies once again jumped to a 1-0 lead in a playoff series, going up 1-0 on the Diamondbacks in the NLCS.

What felt like an easy cruise to victory became a little too close for comfort Monday night, but the Phillies held on, 5-3, to take their third early series lead this postseason.

Ahead 1-0 in the NLCS, the Phillies flexed all the muscles that got them here, including bombs, small ball and power pitching. Before we get ready to do it all again on Tuesday in South Philly, here's a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of a series opener that got the job done:

The good

• One pitch, 1-0 Phils. The sleeping giant that is Kyle Schwarber hit an absolute bullet home run to right field, welcoming Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen to Phillies postseason baseball. The crowd was alive and well.

Not many objects travel at 117 MPH, by the way:

But for some reason, Bryce Harper home runs are always the loudest, and after a line out from Trea Turner, Harper went deep to basically the same spot. It was five pitches and a 2-0 lead for the Fightins — with a mound conference for the shaken up D-backs in record time.

Oh, yeah, also happy 31st birthday to that guy.

• Nick Castellanos hit ANOTHER home run in the second inning. We're going to cover that in a little bit. But holy crap, that's five in three games now. Remember all those years prior to 2022 when everyone was confused as to why the Phillies were not hitting home runs in hitter friendly Citizens Bank Park? Maybe they were saving them?

• J.T. Realmuto was working his way out of a mini-funk and came out the other end in the fifth inning as the Phillies added yet another run playing small ball. With all the home runs it's easy to forget there are other ways to manufacture offense. The catcher's RBI single plated Harper, who reached on a walk and advanced on a wild pitch. A 5-0 lead and Wheeler dealing had the best possible vibes midway through this contest.

• Zack Wheeler elicited eight strikeouts, had 17 very notable swing and misses from Arizona hitters in Game 1, and had crisp lively stuff all evening. He played the role of ace to a 'T.' As he often does, manager Rob Thomson decided to lean on his deep bullpen, pulling Wheeler after six innings. The righty threw in the mid 90s all night, gave up just three hits and needed 81 pitches to record 18 outs.

One more note on just how underrated Wheeler has been in the postseason:

He also has the lowest opponent batting average in postseason history, slightly better than Mariano Rivera and is in the top five in lowest opponent OPS and slugging percentage over a playoff career.

• One last bullet to give props to Phillies' closer Craig Kimbrel, who surrendered a walk in the ninth to make things interesting but got a dramatic game-ending double play to clinch the 'W.'

The bad

• Wheeler threw two bad pitches Monday night, both coming in the top of the sixth — with an Evan Longoria single and Geraldo Perdomo two-run homer getting the Diamondbacks on the board and blemishing an otherwise outstanding outing. The Phillies starters were susceptible to the long ball all season long, but mistakes like these are much more palatable with the team already holding a 5-run lead.

• The Diamondbacks made it a ballgame again in their half of the seventh, using a walk and an error to score a third run on an Alek Thomas sac fly. Seranthony Dominguez was the guilty party in the frame, failing to wiggle out of his self-inflicted tight situation. Jose Alvarado bailed him out to keep the Phillies ahead 5-3.

• There wasn't a ton of bad to write about in this game, but I personally am fascinated with whatever reasoning Rob Thomson is using to make his batting orders this postseason. The Phillies really do have a loaded offensive batting order — really anyone from top to bottom can make an impact very quickly. But Nick Castellanos — the guy we mentioned who has five home runs in his last three playoff games — has been hitting seventh all postseason.

He hit two home runs in Game 3 against the Braves, and batted seventh the next day. He hit two home runs in Game 4 against the Braves, and batted seventh on Monday. He was the first player in baseball history to hit two homers in back to back playoff games. 

Meanwhile, Alec Bohm is responsible for protecting Harper in the lineup (as if that guy has needed it) and is hitting .167, in the 4-hole and Bryson Stott is hitting .208 in the 5-hole. Convention has to insist that Thomson move Casty up in the order, right? 

“Yeah, we thought about it, we talked about it,” Thomson told media members (h/t PhilliesNation). “But you gotta expect Bohm and Stott to get going. And, are you messing up the mix by flipping guys? I think Casty is pretty comfortable with where he’s hitting, and it really makes our lineup long. You get that threat down at the bottom of the order, or close to the bottom.”

So it's superstition then?

The ugly

• I have absolutely no idea why on earth you'd have Gallen pitch to Harper — with first base open and a runner on second, especially with Alec Bohm struggling and Harper scorching hot. Foolishly, Torey Lovullo did just that in the third inning and Harper not surprisingly added his second RBI to put Philadelphia up 4-0. 

• I actually don't have a problem with Brandon Marsh trying to score from third base on Schwarber's ground ball out with out man out in the fourth. The Phillies have taken pride in their aggressive approach to basically everything on the diamond this postseason, and with a sizable lead they were going for the kill. The base-running "blunder" likely cost the Phillies a run (one they didn't need).

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