Phillies stun Cardinals in ninth, one win from facing Braves in NLDS

ST. LOUIS – Phillies fans waited 11 years to see their team back in the postseason. The Phillies thanked their patience with an all-time masterclass in playing spoiler.

The Cardinals had the lead, a rowdy homefield advantage and the storyline. The Phillies had a disadvantage, almost 46,000 abhorring them and a miserable recent history. All that was all blown to bits in the ninth inning Friday, with the Phillies scoring six times to upset the Cardinals, 6-3, in Game 1 of the best-of-three Wild Card Series.

The Phillies are one victory from facing the Braves in the National League Division Series. That reality came after they were two outs from seeing their season on life support. Philadelphia minds shifted from dejection to elation in the matter of a few at-bats.

Zack Wheeler’s and Jose Quintana’s brilliance made offense scarce. The game was scoreless until Cardinals’ rookie Juan Yepez cranked a two-out, two-run homer off Jose Alvarado in the seventh. But the Phillies showed resiliency and spirit that hasn’t been synonymous with their franchise in quite some time.

For a moment, the Phillies looked like the club shrouded by good vibes and a magical aura. The Cardinals looked like the sloppy team that missed the postseason for the past decade. Even in a sport of oddities, Friday’s finish can’t be classified as anything but stunning.

Cardinals All-Star reliever Ryan Helsley recorded the last two outs in the eighth and stayed in the game with his club protecting a 2-0 lead. He struck out Rhys Hoskins to begin the ninth, then everything went awry. In 17 pitches, the Phillies cut the deficit to one and had the bases loaded. Helsley gave up a single then issued consecutive walks before hitting Alec Bohm with a pitch that scored the first run. Helsley was removed with injury (numbness in middle finger) for Andre Pallante.

Jean Segura, making his postseason debut, singled home two and put the Phillies ahead. They added another three runs before the top of the ninth finished, taking every bit of air out of Busch Stadium in doing so. Helsley was charged four earned runs while recording three outs. He’d allowed only nine earned runs over 64-2/3 innings entering the postseason.

It was a role reversal, given both franchise’s reputations, and it put the Phillies on the precipice of facing the Braves next week.

“Electric,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said about his dugout in the ninth. “Those guys were right into it. It was great.”

An incredible stat from ESPN’s research: The Cardinals were 93-0 in their postseason history when leading by two or more runs entering the ninth. This was, no hyperbole, a historic meltdown for one of MLB’s flagship franchises. And it puts them one loss away from seeing Yadier Molina’s and Albert Pujols’ careers end far earlier than they hoped.

The last time the Phillies were a postseason team, the Cardinals upset them en route to a World Series title (2011). The Phillies spent the next decade wandering in the mediocre wilderness. At last, the best team “stupid money” could buy gets a taste of October bliss again.

MLB’s expanded postseason seems successful thus far. The Phillies were the beneficiaries of the new sixth seed. This also marked two-time MVP Bryce Harper’s playoff debut with the franchise, in which he went 0-for-3 but walked and scored in the ninth.

The Phillies didn’t push the Braves or Mets in the NL East, but their roster is still capable of playoff noise. They have two frontline starters, Wheeler and Aaron Nola, plus power bats. Those are needed ingredients in this era for extended postseason success.

Wheeler, a Smyrna native, former Met and recurring pain in the Braves’ side, retired 10 straight at one point and pitched 6-1/3 scoreless innings. Since the Phillies gave Wheeler a five-year, $118 million deal in December 2019, he’s made that contract a bargain. This was his most meaningful outing yet.

“Zack is one of those guys that’s going to get after you,” Segura said. “He doesn’t care who you are. He’s going to attack you. He’s going to throw it where you’re not able to skirt a ball. That’s our guy. I saw him today locked in. It was amazing.”

The Phillies showed they’re capable of winning these gut-check games, both from a personnel and mental standpoint. It’s been a long time coming. They’ve operated as a franchise expecting greatness for several offseasons now, they’ve just underwhelmed when the product hits the field.

They went 81-81 in Harper’s inaugural season with the club (2019). They disappointed in the truncated 2020 campaign with a 28-32 mark, missing the widely expanded postseason field. They won 82 games last season. They haven’t come close to truly challenging the Braves, acting more as an inconvenience than club worthy of sitting atop the NL East.

After firing manager Joe Girardi due to a 22-29 start, the Phillies sizably improved this year with 87 wins. They would take an even greater lunge forward by winning this series. “We still have a long way to go,” Segura noted.

No one will declare the Cardinals dead. They must win the next two games, both at Busch Stadium, to overcome the sourness of Friday’s defeat. That won’t be easy, especially with Nola (11-13, 3.25) looming Saturday, but it’s doable. St. Louis will start Miles Mikolas (12-13, 3.29).

“I think we’ll be fine,” Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “These guys all year have done a nice job of whether we win a big game or lose a big game. The next day is a new day. This will be no different. We know what’s at stake. We either win or go home. We’ll embrace that.”

Meanwhile, the Braves will sit back and enjoy the show while rooting for the series to exhaust both parties. They probably wouldn’t mind a Cardinals’ victory in Game 2.