HOUSTON — Magic wrestled pedigree in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday night, as the preternatural Philadelphia Phillies and grizzled Houston Astros played into the night. A team loaded with October experience collided with a team graced by that mysterious October serendipity that data cannot explain. And for more than four grueling hours and nine unpredictable innings, the game couldn’t seem to decide which force should prevail.
Not until the top of the 10th, when Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto sent an opposite-field homer beyond the outreached glove of early-innings hero Kyle Tucker did fate seem to make up its mind. And by the time David Robertson worked through the heart of the Astros’ order in the bottom of the inning, the evening’s verdict was clear: For one night at least, the Phillies — the magic, the vibes — won out, 6-5. The Astros lost for the first time this postseason. Three teams have tried this month. Only the Phillies have solved them.
“We know [Houston] is a good baseball team. There’s no if, ands or buts about it. They won that many games in a row and they’ve been going really good in the postseason,” Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber said. “We just have to be able to do our thing, play our brand of baseball, and we’re going to see what happens.”
The series the Phillies now lead pits the fearless against the feared, the unexpected against the inevitable. The Astros always find themselves here this time of year. Until about midsummer, the Phillies looked like a team that would spend a little more per win than their owner, John Middleton, might have hoped. The Astros won 106 games during the regular season. The Phillies won 87.
That the Phillies were not the obvious choice to represent the National League in the World Series did not mean they lacked the necessary accoutrements. They had a homegrown ace, Aaron Nola, worthy of the Game 1 matchup with one of the more decorated pitchers in recent regular season and postseason history, Justin Verlander. For every familiar Astros star, the Phillies had one of their own: Realmuto, Bryce Harper, Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins and more.
And the Phillies brought something else to the World Series with them — a motto, a commitment to playing all 27 outs, the kind of thing most teams say to themselves all year without ever internalizing it, the kind of thing that becomes as ingrained as it feels corny for teams on runs like this one.
So if the series was mismatched in theory, the Phillies’ propensity for dramatics ensured it did not feel that way Friday — at least not after the fifth inning, by which time the Phillies had climbed back from the 5-0 deficit the Astros built on the back of two Kyle Tucker homers in the first three innings.
Tucker has established himself as an annual 30-30 candidate at age 25 but is still something of a forgotten piece of a team headlined by José Altuve and Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez. He did not allow himself to be forgotten Friday. Had the roof been open, his second-inning homer might have grazed the rain clouds that dumped on Houston all afternoon. The one he hit an inning later, with two men on, was a low line drive to right-center.
As soon as he was sure it was gone — or approximately two milliseconds after he hit it — Tucker smirked, spun and tossed his bat aside as if to suggest the whole thing was just too easy. He was the first Astro with a multihomer game in the World Series. His pitcher, Verlander, had a perfect game at that point. In other words, who could blame him?
“I feel really confident that 99 percent of the time, I’m able to hold that lead,” Verlander said later.
But in the fourth inning, Verlander couldn’t handle Realmuto’s line drive up the middle, which allowed Hoskins — who was certain to be doubled off if he had — to return safely to first and extend the inning. Verlander, who had been dominant, found himself in the stretch against the middle of the order. He never looked comfortable again. The Phillies rattled off three straight two-out hits to chip away at the lead. Realmuto doubled home two more runs in the fifth. The momentum lived.
“I’ve watched enough sports in my life to know that sometimes you need a little help from, whatever sport you’re playing, the baseball gods, right?” Hoskins said. “If it’s a weird hit, a weird bounce, whatever it may be — sometimes you need that. We felt like throughout the year sometimes, those things didn’t go our way. But we’ll take them going our way now.”
Phillies Manager Rob Thomson did not seem willing to leave his team’s Game 1 destiny up to a bounce here or there. He managed his pitching staff aggressively, bringing in late-inning option José Alvarado to calm the Astros’ bats in the fifth inning, going to starter Ranger Suárez later instead of trying to save him to start Game 3 — something Hoskins and others said later signaled confidence that they were in the game even when they hadn’t completed their comeback.
Thomson’s far more experienced counterpart, Dusty Baker, managed more cautiously — a little slower to pull Verlander when he struggled than the Phillies were with Nola, opting for starter Luis Garcia, who surrendered the go-ahead homer, instead of choosing elite righty Ryne Stanek.
“That was the deciding run, but we had the winning runs on base to end the game. We had a pretty good lead early,” Baker said. “It’s easy to say, oh, if Stanek had given it up, how come we used Stanek? It didn’t work.”
In some ways, this whole series is a strange experiment in what works when it comes to winning in October these days. No one feels comfortable gushing about the Astros, not after the sign-stealing scandal that tainted their only World Series title in 2017. But anyone who has seen the randomness that seems to seize October baseball, the way happenstance seems to undermine even the best regular season teams, sees in them the clearest example of what works and what doesn’t. They have played in four of the past six World Series. They have faced four different opponents.
But the Phillies have not cared much about anyone else’s momentum this month, testing theirs against all comers and finding it strong enough to carry them. And in the fourth and fifth, as they charged back into the game, they seemed to offer early evidence that they will not let Houston’s pedigree undermine their sudden serendipity without a fight.
“Any time we get down early in the game, when we have outs left, we feel pretty confident in ourselves,” Realmuto said. “Obviously you never want to get down early. It’s not a fun way to play baseball.”
The Phillies, in keeping with their habit of ignoring all norms and expectations this October, have actually made getting down early and storming back late look like the most fun way to play baseball — or at least the most fascinating, for better or worse. For example, they also loaded the bases in the seventh and forced Baker to bring in righty Héctor Neris, a lifelong Phillie until this season, when he joined the Astros.
So with the bases loaded and two outs, it was Neris who struck out Nick Castellanos in the biggest moment of the World Series to that point. But, of course, it was Castellanos who made a sliding catch to save the game when Jeremy Peña blooped a ball into short right with a man on second in the bottom of the ninth.
“Dang it,” Hoskins said he thought when he saw the ball plummeting toward Earth, carrying the game with it. “Then here came Nick.”
Castellanos is emblematic of these Phillies in that he is more slugger than defender, in the politest of terms. Yet his catch was emblematic of everything the Phillies have been this October: at every possible moment, somehow, enough.