Nola, Schwarber lead the way as Phils pop champagne corks for first time in a decade


HOUSTON -- The Phillies are going to a place they haven't been to since the bright and shiny days of Jimmy, Chase, Ryan, Cole, Chooch and Big Chuck.

After 10 long seasons of not making the playoffs, 10 seasons that included a full tear down, a rebuild, the end of a long sellout streak, several huge free-agent spending sprees, six managers, three general managers, a change of leadership at the ownership level, a dedication to analytics, the addition of a president of baseball operations, and way too many losses, the Phillies are finally headed back to the postseason.

They clinched a National League wild-card spot with a 3-0 win over the Houston Astros deep in the heart of Texas on Monday night. 

Aaron Nola pitched the game of his life. Kyle Schwarber hit the first pitch of the game over the wall in left-center. He hit another homer, his 46th, in the top of the eighth, going back-to-back with rookie Bryson Stott.

Jose Alvarado was spectacular out of the bullpen and when it was over, Phillies players mobbed each other on the field.

October baseball, a regular occurrence from 2007 to 2011 and a stranger since, is back on Philadelphia's sporting marquee and the longest postseason drought in the NL is over. The Phillies will play their first postseason game since October 7, 2011, the night Roy Halladay left it all on the mound and Ryan Howard blew out his Achilles tendon in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, on Friday. St. Louis is a potential opponent. So are the Mets. It'll be a best-of-three series, all to be played on the road because the Phillies will be the lower seed. After 10 years of grim darkness, they aren't about to complain about the venue.

With their magic number down to one, the Phillies needed a win over the Astros or a Milwaukee loss to gain entry to the postseason.

On the out-of-town scoreboard, the Brewers and Diamondbacks went back and forth on their way to extra innings. The Brewers ended up winning.

But it didn't matter.

The Phillies took care of their own business.

They walked through the front door, with the longest-tenured member of the team and a newcomer and emotional leader showing them the way.

Nola debuted with the Phillies in 2015. He entered Monday night's game with 202 career starts, the second most of any active pitcher not to appear in a postseason game. In his 203rd career start, he pitched perfect baseball for 6 2/3 innings, retiring 20 batters in a row, before giving up a pair of singles and leaving the game at 88 pitches. He walked none and struck out nine.

Schwarber came to the Phillies in March on a four-year, $79 million contract and so far has been worth every penny. In just a few months with the team, he became its emotional leader. He also became its home run leader, the league leader for that matter. He led a June renaissance for the team with 12 homers and 27 RBIs. When the Phillies were desperate for a win Saturday night in Washington, Schwarber homered twice. When they were on the cusp of clinching a playoff berth in the 160th game of the season Monday night, he homered twice.

Alvarado's contribution in recent months has been huge and it was again in the clincher. Manager Rob Thomson asked him to protect a 1-0 lead with two men on base in the seventh and he struck out lefty-hitting Kyle Tucker with a 101-mph sinker. He stayed for the bottom of the eighth and got three more outs. In that inning, he was pitching with a 3-0 lead thanks to the back-to-back homers by Stott and Schwarber against Jose Urquidy in the top of the inning. Zach Eflin, another longtime Phillie who has never been to the postseason, got the final three outs and the first save of his career.

In the biggest win of the season, Thomson pulled Nola at the right time and brought in the right guy from the bullpen. In his own way, Thomson was as clutch as Nola, Schwarber, Stott and Alvarado, both on Monday night and in the big picture.

The Phillies were seven games under .500 when Thomson took over for Joe Girardi in early June. The team quickly turned things around and played itself into playoff contention. Things got a little rocky in recent weeks, but now everything is OK. The Phillies are 65-44 under Thomson, who still wears an interim label, and 87-73 overall. 

They are going to the postseason for the first time in a decade.

Through the front door.

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