MLB Playoffs

Phillies celebrate another playoff berth, reflect on the difference of this journey

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Johan Rojas wasn't even supposed to be here in 2023.

Any team could have had Jeff Hoffman the first week of April.

There they were Tuesday night, playing pivotal roles for the Phillies in their playoff clincher, Hoffman earning the win and Rojas delivering the walk-off hit in a 3-2, extra-inning victory as the Phillies, again, celebrated in front of their home fans and in their home clubhouse with their favorite post-victory playlist.

Of course, there was a little "Dancing On My Own," as the Phillies punched their ticket back to the dance. They clinched the No. 4 seed in the National League, the top wild-card spot which comes with home-field advantage in all three games of the first-round Best-of-3 series.

"Our team is built for October," Bryce Harper said in a beer-soaked clubhouse. "A lot of people know that. People that play us understand that. We have a lineup built for that and three or four horses on our starting staff, guys at the back end of the bullpen that are really lights out. We're excited."

Hoffman pitched a scoreless top of the 10th inning, picking up three outs with two men on base. Rojas, with two strikes, singled to center off Pirates closer David Bednar, one of the best in baseball, to win the game.

Rojas debuted in the majors ahead of schedule in July when Cristian Pache was sidelined by an elbow injury. It didn't take him long to seize the center field job with elite defense and a surprisingly steady bat. The rookie is hitting .304 in 152 plate appearances.

Hoffman was drafted ninth overall back in 2014 but hadn't really found a home until this season with the Phillies. He was signed to a minor-league contract on April 2, and the first real look the big-league staff had at him was in a live batting practice session against Harper as Harper was rehabbing his Tommy John surgery.

Now he's picking up high-leverage outs for a contending team and could be called upon in huge spots in October.

The teams that win it all need guys like this. They need production from the sources you expect but also those you don't.

"It's been an incredible journey every step of the way. It's been full of surprises," Hoffman said. "I put in the work and I'm excited it's worked out the way it has. I couldn't be happier that it's with this team and this group of guys."

How long did it take him to feel acclimated?

"Almost immediately," he said. "Everybody here, between guys I've played against in the past, a bunch of guys drafted the same year as me, it was really easy to just step in and click.

"You hear it about the teams that win every year. There's something about them. There's a glue that keeps them together. Guys from the 2015 Royals are still in group texts, every one of those guys are there for each other and I see no differences here."

It feels like ancient history at this point but the Phillies were on the outside of the wild-card race looking in when teams reconvened after the All-Star break in mid-July.

They trailed the Giants by a half-game for the final spot. They trailed the Marlins by 3½ games for the top wild card.

The Phillies took three of four from the Padres out of the break and haven't looked back since, with players up and down the roster stepping up to play their best baseball of the year — from the big-money guys facing high expectations like Harper, Trea Turner and Kyle Schwarber to players from which little was expected in 2023 like Cristopher Sanchez, Rojas and Hoffman.

"Hoffman came in & shut the door, Pache scored the winning run, Rojas had the game-winning hit," Harper said. "You probably wouldn't think that at the beginning of the year, right?"

Earlier in the night, another important development was Aaron Nola's start. Nola allowed one run over 6⅔ innings and has had two strong outings in a row as he gears up for the playoffs. He is likely to start Game 2 of the wild-card series.

Nola limited the Braves to two runs over six innings last week. He's made two high-quality starts in a row against Atlanta, the Phillies' NLDS opponent should they advance.

How he was pitching in mid-July or early September becomes almost meaningless now. He can completely change the narrative of his 2023 season with a big playoff run.

"To be truthful with you, I kind of expected it," manager Rob Thomson said. "I kind of expected that as the season wore on, that he'd find it. I've said all along that he's a big-game pitcher. I trust him with my life in a big game, and he did it again."

Now, the Phillies wait to see who they'll play in the first round. The Diamondbacks won Tuesday night as the Cubs lost late in Atlanta. The D-backs lead the Cubs by one game, plus the tiebreaker, for the 5-seed, which will face the Phillies.

The path to returning to the World Series will be arduous. The Phillies will have to win in the wild-card round, beat the Braves in the NLDS then likely topple the Dodgers in the NLCS. They could both win 100 games.

"The opportunity to play into October, hopefully November with a great group of guys," Harper said, before trailing off.

"Any time you can get there is satisfying, no matter what. Everything starts over once you get in."

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