PHILADELPHIA — The entire Diamondbacks team had departed the field and Kyle Schwarber stood there, alone at second base in the middle of the seventh inning, and this is when it felt too real. The hulking slugger had tried to do too much — take 90 feet while trailing by four runs — and he paid for it. It was 7:36 p.m. ET and some people decided it was time to leave a ballpark that has achieved legend-like status in October.
A replay review of Schwarber’s mistake took less than a minute. Then, Citizens Bank Park turned dark to signal Craig Kimbrel’s entrance as a mop-up man, and boos greeted him. The vibes were extinguished.
The two most terrifying words for a team that lost Game 6 at home: Game Seven.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Schwarber said after a 5-1 loss. “This is what you play for. Obviously, it sucks, right? You wish you got it done today. Absolutely. But it’s an exciting thing. We’re embracing it. We’re in this spot. We deserve to be in this spot. We have a chance to play our best game tomorrow and move on to the World Series.”
Really, in this city, no one knows what Game 7 will feel like. The Phillies have existed for 141 seasons and they have never played a Game 7. Their opponent in this National League Championship Series hails from a place that became a state in 1912. The Phillies have been around since 1883.
They looked for omens before Monday’s Game 6 began. It had been one year to the day since Bryce Harper took the swing of his life and propelled the Phillies into the World Series. But, 30 years ago Monday, the Phillies lost the most heartbreaking Game 6 in the club’s history when Joe Carter took a fateful swing. This time, at least, there will be a Game 7.
This franchise is littered with agony, and that is why a Game 7 — in these circumstances — will generate the darkest feelings. It’s only natural. This is the Phillies. They opened the door to pain.
But they aren’t done yet. How does the first Game 7 in franchise history sound?
“It sounds like a lot of fun,” Nick Castellanos said. “What a great opportunity.”
This is what Schwarber, one of the few Phillies to play in a Game 7, will talk about in the 24 hours between his team losing Game 6 and Ranger Suárez’s first pitch of Game 7. The nerves can be channeled, Schwarber said, and it’s best not to ignore them. Use the energy in productive ways.
“It’s not going to be everyone trying to do so much,” Schwarber said. “That’s going to be the message: Don’t try to do too much. Right? Don’t let anything dictate how you feel. Just go in there, take one pitch at a time. Take it an out at a time. That’s what tomorrow’s going to be. You know what? It’s going to be an exciting game. We’re all looking forward to it.”
But, in Game 6, the Phillies looked like a team that let the situation dictate their play. They stacked uncompetitive at-bats together. They swung at the first pitch in 15 of their 35 plate appearances, but it’s been trending that way all series. These are the first-pitch swings game-by-game in the NLCS: 12, 10, 10, 15, 14, 15. The Phillies mustered one extra-base hit in Game 6 — a second-inning double by J.T. Realmuto. He scored the only run when Brandon Marsh singled to right.
Rob Thomson will not change his lineup for Game 7. “Zero,” Thomson said, when asked if he’d consider anything different. This is how the Phillies manager is: An alteration, even the slightest, might be perceived as panic before Game 7. Early in Game 6, Diamondbacks starter Merrill Kelly did not offer Schwarber or Harper much to hit. Is it hard to stay patient when the pressure rises to score runs?
“Absolutely not,” Schwarber said. “No. I’ll take four walks tomorrow if I can. We’ve got trust in the guys behind us. That’s plain and simple. This offense, it’s so deep. If we get guys on base, if we get traffic on base, I’ll take our chances with anyone up there at the plate.”
Alec Bohm has failed for much of this series, but he was one of the few Phillies who found a hole in Game 6. He collected two opposite-field singles. He’ll hit fourth again in Game 7. If Castellanos generated confidence right now, he could move into the cleanup spot. But he is hitless in his last 19 at-bats with nine strikeouts. Realmuto could flip spots with Bohm, but the Phillies used Realmuto as the No. 4 hitter only eight times during the season and doing so Tuesday would look desperate in Thomson’s view.
It’s all superfluous now. The club’s stars will win or lose Game 7 no matter what the arranged order is.
“It’s a game of inches,” Castellanos said, “or whatever is smaller than inches.”
Here, at Citizens Bank Park, the margins have always felt bigger. Almost fairy-tale-like. The Phillies had not lost here this month. When Aaron Nola allowed three runs in the span of nine second-inning pitches, it represented the Phillies’ largest deficit of this entire postseason.
The mood shifted.
“It was considerably more quiet for those middle innings when I think things can get really ramped up here,” Arizona manager Torey Lovullo said. “But once they get somebody on base or they score a run, it picks up again.”
But the Phillies didn’t do that. They didn’t make Arizona’s top relievers throw stressful pitches in Game 6. They avoided using their own best relievers, so the bullpen is fresh for Game 7.
To start Tuesday, it’s Suárez against Brandon Pfaadt, the rookie who dazzled in Game 3 and provided a roadmap for any pitcher trying to beat the Phillies. “We’ve just got to get him on the plate,” Harper said, “and do our damage when we can.” Pfaadt is unproven, but his dominant effort earlier in the series will bolster him.
Suárez pitched a postseason-high 5 1/3 innings in Game 3. The Phillies have had a tight leash on their calm lefty and, since it’s Game 7, that will probably apply again. But Suárez, the son of a Venezuelan farmer and recipient of a mere $25,000 signing bonus, has a chance to grow his legacy here.
“It’s a very exciting opportunity,” Suárez said, “and I think tomorrow is going to be a great day.”
That’s what the Phillies told themselves in a quiet clubhouse that was supposed to host another raucous party Monday night. “All right, get them tomorrow,” veteran executive Dave Dombrowski said to Castellanos. “That’s it.” Castellanos nodded.
That’s it. Nothing else — including the first bad vibes in South Philly — mattered. No one here has ever felt the weight of a Game 7 like this. Maybe these Phillies are the ones who are supposed to face a challenge unlike any in this franchise’s history.
“This team is too good,” Schwarber said. “Every time that we’ve had something tough come about, we’ve responded. Everyone is going to have the right mindset.”
(Top photo of Kyle Schwarber: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)