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Down early, Phillies lumber up and thump Padres to seize control of NLCS

J.T. Realmuto — and the Phillies' dugout — react after Realmuto blasted the fourth of Philadelphia's four home runs Saturday night in Game 4 of the NLCS. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — All the Philadelphia Phillies faced Saturday night in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series were a four-run deficit seven batters into the game, a bullpen devoid of A-list options and the sudden and frightening awakening of San Diego Padres slugger Juan Soto, whom they much preferred in a dormant state. Oh, not to mention Game 5 looming the next afternoon, each passing minute bringing the Sunday morning alarm clock a little closer.

But a quick accounting of what the Phillies still had on their side was no small comfort to the 45,467 fans who jammed into Citizens Bank Park to witness the latest exploits of the team that has spent this autumn winning their hearts.

They still had the lead in the NLCS, at least for the moment. They still had Bryce Harper and his merry band of fastball-destroying lumberjacks. And by the end of a wild and electrifying night, the Phillies had a 10-6 victory over the faltering Padres, as well as a dizzying realization:

Win again Sunday in Game 5 — in a home stadium where they are 4-0 this postseason, having outscored opponents by a 31-12 margin — and this late-blooming outfit, the third-place finisher in the NL East with 87 victories, will be heading to the World Series. Phillies ace Zack Wheeler will face Padres veteran Yu Darvish in a rematch of Game 1, a 2-0 Phillies win.

“I don’t think any of us are in shock, but ... we’re grateful and understand that this opportunity is huge. We’re one of the last teams playing right now, and it’s really cool to see that,” Harper said. “I believe our team is built for October, I really do.”

On a night of huge swings of both maple and momentum, the Phillies took the lead for the first time with a four-run barrage in the bottom of the fifth, the big blows a two-run homer from first baseman Rhys Hoskins, his second of the night, and an RBI double by Harper, also his second of the night.

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Harper, who turned 30 last week, has spent this month looking like a cross between 2021 Bryce — a hitter who merely won the NL’s MVP award — and Babe Ruth himself. He has 10 extra-base hits this postseason, including four homers, and is hitting .410 with a 1.311 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

“The superstar of our generation," said Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm of Harper. “And he shows up when it matters. The only time I’ve seen him this locked in was the second half of last year. So that tells you.”

The Phillies would tack on homers from Kyle Schwarber and J.T. Realmuto, as the first four hitters in their lineup — Schwarber, Hoskins, Realmuto and Harper — combined to go 7 for 14 with four homers, two doubles and eight RBI.

“The top four of that lineup is very, very good,” said Padres lefty Sean Manaea, who earned the loss while giving up half the Phillies’ 10 runs in 1⅓ innings of relief, “and when you fall behind [in the count], they’ll get you.”

By the end of the Phillies’ onslaught, it was almost difficult to remember how this whole thing started, three-something hours earlier. There was a time when the Phillies weren’t even sure how they would make it out of the top of the first inning. Then again, the Padres could say the same thing.

The first inning alone took 48 minutes to complete. The de facto starting pitchers, Philadelphia’s Bailey Falter and San Diego’s Mike Clevinger, combined to face a total of 10 batters and retired just two of them. It became the first postseason game in which neither pitcher made it out of the first inning since Game 4 of the 1932 World Series, when the pitchers were Johnny Allen of the Yankees and Guy Bush of the Cubs.

(Those pitchers, incidentally, combined to win 35 games in 1933, so there is still hope for Falter and Clevinger.)

By that point, the NLCS was veering close to a state of pure delirium. Extrapolating that first inning across an entire game would have meant a final score of 36-27 in about eight hours’ time, with the teams’ respective shortstops pitching the final inning or two.

While order was soon restored — in the form of Phillies right-hander Connor Brogdon and Padres right-hander Nick Martinez, who combined to retire 16 of the 17 batters they faced — it was a temporary reprieve.

The middle innings felt like a succession of rounds of a heavyweight brawl, with the teams trading blows, then repairing to their respective corners to regroup. In the top of the fifth, Soto’s two-run homer, his first of this postseason, broke a 4-4 tie and served as the latest sign that a breakthrough could be coming for Soto — if it’s not too late. With a .233 batting average and .637 OPS this postseason, he still has a long way to go to have the same impact he did for the 2019 Washington Nationals, when he hit five homers, drove in 14 runs and posted a .927 OPS on the way to a World Series title.

But the Phillies were happy to match the Padres swing for swing in a slugfest. After Soto put the Padres ahead, the Phillies answered with six straight runs over the next three innings, highlighted by the homers from Hoskins, Schwarber and Realmuto.

Saturday night’s slugfest was perhaps predictable when one examined the state of the respective pitching staffs. With both teams out of trusted starters and facing the daunting prospect of up to five games in five days, they resorted to glorified bullpen games for Game 4. It went terribly for the Phillies, and not much better for the Padres.

The difference: the Phillies eventually cobbled together enough outs — from Brogdon, Andrew Bellatti, Brad Hand, Noah Syndergaard, David Robertson and Zach Eflin (who earned the save with a perfect ninth) — to get into the clubhouse with a victory. The Padres, meanwhile, became just the third team in postseason history to lose a game in which they scored at least four runs in the top of the first.

Some 3½ years ago, after spending the first nine years of his professional career with the Nationals, Harper signed a 13-year $330 million contract with the Phillies. At the time, he had been to the postseason a total of four times, never winning a series. And now suddenly, he would awake and come to the ballpark Sunday with a chance to put his team in the World Series.

“I’m so excited for tomorrow,” he said late Saturday night. “I’m going to kiss my son tonight, kiss my daughter good night tonight. Hopefully [they] can sleep through the night tonight, and we can get going tomorrow.”