It's almost never easy for the Phillies, even when it seems the stars have aligned, so was there really any other way Tuesday night could have played out?
The Phillies punched their ticket to the playoffs with another dramatic moment in a ballpark that has seen so many over the last calendar year, walking off over the Pirates with a 3-2 win in 10 innings to clinch their second straight postseason berth.
Johan Rojas delivered the game-winning hit, a two-strike single to center to send the Citizens Bank Park crowd into a frenzy.
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The latest batch of late-game heroics was set up by a lead built in the sixth inning that was blown in the eighth by Craig Kimbrel. It marked the seventh time in the last 16 games the Phillies have allowed the go-ahead or tying run(s) in the eighth inning or later, but they've hung around in most of those games and have won 10 of the 16.
Beyond clinching a wild-card spot, the Phillies clinched the No. 4 seed, which comes with home-field advantage in each game of the Best-of-3 wild-card series.
At 88-69 with five games to play, the Phillies have their highest win total since 2011. They're 18 games over .500 for the first time since the final day of that season. They've won six in a row and are finishing the regular season the way a team would want, save for a bit too much late-inning drama.
Most importantly, they're able to align their rotation and rest their bullpen the way they see fit over the final two series against the Mets and Pirates. Game 1 of the wild-card round is Tuesday, October 3, two days after Game 162.
Aaron Nola authored a second straight strong start and tipped his cap to the Citizens Bank Park crowd as he walked off the field to a standing ovation. After limiting the Braves to two runs over six innings last week in Atlanta, he held the Pirates off the board until the seventh, allowing one run over 6⅔ on a Bryan Reynolds solo home run.
Nola is one of few Phillies who has been worse since the All-Star break, carrying a 4.99 ERA over his previous 13 starts into Tuesday night. But all that matters is the way he's pitching now, and at the moment, he has his full arsenal working. He's freezing hitters with the two-seamer, keeping his changeup low and missing bats with the curveball.
Nola surpassed 200 strikeouts for the fifth consecutive non-COVID-shortened season. He is lined up to start at Citi Field on the final day but will almost certainly be saved for the playoffs instead. There are nine days between Tuesday night and Game 2 of the wild-card round (October 4), so Nola could make an abbreviated appearance of two or three innings in place of a bullpen session Friday. That's all TBD.
Manager Rob Thomson has reiterated his belief in Nola as a big-game pitcher all throughout 2023, even at the right-hander's lowest moments. He is still the likely bet to start Game 2 of the opening round.
While the crowd was loud, the Phillies' bats were quiet Tuesday night until Brandon Marsh opened the bottom of the sixth with a solo home run to right-center. Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller, their best pitcher and a 2023 All-Star who entered with 204 K's, had no-hit them through five innings. Rojas and Trea Turner singled later in the sixth and a second run scored on a sacrifice fly crushed to center by Bryce Harper.
There has been plenty of celebrating in the home clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park over the last calendar year and the Phillies had another reason to party on Tuesday night. It's just the first step of a journey they fell two wins shy of completing a year ago, and they'll enter this October with even more confidence. Making another deep run won't be easy — it will likely require eliminating both the Braves and Dodgers if the Phillies advance past the wild-card round — but good luck convincing any of these players they can't do it.