The Houston Astros are one win away from the franchise’s second World Series championship and the Philadelphia Phillies are one loss away from their sixth World Series defeat. The Phillies won the World Series in 1980 and 2008. They lost the World Series in 1915, 1950, 1983, 1993, and 2009. A loss in Game 6 or 7 adds 2022 to the list.
“I think it’s ‘stay the course,'” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said Friday when asked about his message to his team. “We played really good baseball. I don’t think there’s any reason to panic. We just got to keep doing what we’re doing and concentrate on doing the little things. I always tell ’em focus on the little things and big things will happen. Don’t try to do too much, be yourself, good at-bats, play good defense, throw strikes, execute pitches, that type of thing.”
The Astros hold a 3-2 series lead and return home to Minute Maid Park for Game 6 and, if necessary, Game 7. They’re in the driver’s seat, though you needn’t look back far to see the last time they were in that same situation; in 2019 the Astros took a 3-2 series lead home for Games 6 and 7, but dropped both games to the Washington Nationals. The last win is always the most difficult.
Truth be told, it’s a minor miracle the World Series isn’t over yet. The Astros took a 5-0 lead in three of the first four games and threw a combined no-hitter in Game 4. The Phillies have only been outscored 18-17 in the series, although there have definitely been times the series felt like a mismatch. It’s a credit to Philadelphia’s toughness and resourcefulness that they’re even still playing.
The 2019 Nationals showed it’s possible to go into Houston, win two games and clinch a championship. That doesn’t mean it will be easy though. Far from it. Here are four things that must happen for the Phillies to have their best shot at making a comeback to win the World Series.
1. Get a dominant start from Wheeler
Obvious statement is obvious, but the comeback starts with the guy on the mound. The Nationals made their comeback in 2019 thanks in large part to Stephen Strasburg, who provided what proved to be a World Series MVP winning performance in Game 6. Strasburg held Houston to two runs in 8 1/3 innings, sparing the bullpen and giving the offense time to build a lead.
Zack Wheeler had a rough outing in Game 2, surrendering five runs (four earned) in five innings, including three runs off only six batters into the game. Wheeler’s velocity was down a bit as well, and the Phillies declined to start him on normal rest in Game 5 just to give him a little extra rest and make sure he was in the best possible position physically the next time he takes the mound.
“Yeah, I think the extra rest always helps,” Wheeler said Friday. “But the bullpen felt good. I think we’re on track.”
Prior to Game 2, Wheeler was nailed in four postseason starts, pitching to a 1.78 ERA and 0.51 WHIP in 25 1/3 innings. He had a great regular season as well, essentially matching his 2021 Cy Young runner-up performance on a rate basis, albeit in fewer innings due to some nagging injuries. Make no mistake, Wheeler has been a frontline starter for three years now.
The Phillies need Wheeler to go out and dominate in Game 6 the way Strasburg did three years ago. It’s really hard to see them making a comeback in the series with Wheeler being anything less than excellent. Any hope starts with him.
“I think you just pitch to your strengths and just make the adjustments that you need to,” Wheeler said Friday when asked what he took from Game 2. “They’re a good team, but hopefully I can command the ball a little bit better this time and hopefully that puts me in a better position.”
2. Harper and Schwarber keep doing damage
Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber are a combined 8 for 33 (.242) in the World Series, which doesn’t look all that impressive until you realize the rest of the Phillies are hitting .156. Harper and Schwarber are Tony Gwynn, comparatively. Furthermore, they’ve hit three of the team’s seven homers and have combined for nine walks, or a .419 on-base percentage. Harper and Schwarber have been a two-man army on offense.
The Astros have had a clear plan of attack with Harper, challenging with fastballs upstairs because belt high and below is his nitro zone. That’s where he does the most damage. Harper will hit singles and take walks on elevated heaters, and it appears the Astros are willing to live with that. They don’t want him doing major damage. Look at the pitches he’s seen in the World Series:
That purple dot in the middle? That’s Harper’s two-run homer against Lance McCullers Jr. in the first inning of Game 3. That is decidedly not where you want to pitch him. The Astros have challenged Harper with fastballs upstairs throughout the series and he’s still been productive, although not quite as productive as in previous rounds. He’s been merely great rather than legendary.
Point is, Harper and Schwarber have been Philadelphia’s two most productive hitters in the World Series by a mile, and I think Thomson should consider hitting them 1-2 in the lineup. Right now, Schwarber hits leadoff and Harper cleanup. Veteran Will Smith is the only lefty in Houston’s bullpen and he appears to be on the outside looking in of manager Dusty Baker’s Circle of Trust™. If Baker wants to go to Smith rather than one of his many great righties against Schwarber and Harper, so be it. I think batting them 1-2 and ensuring they get the most at-bats puts the Phillies in the best position to win.
Either way, Schwarber and Harper have to continue to produce at a high level for a comeback to happen. One or both of those guys having a quiet Game 6 or Game 7 likely spells doom for the Phillies. Simply put, the team’s two best hitters need to continue to be their two best hitters.
3. Get something from the supporting cast
Among hitters, JT Realmuto’s Game 1 performance was the best by any player on either team in the World Series thus far. He hit a game-tying two-run double to erase the early 5-0 deficit, then slugged the game-winning home run in the tenth inning. Those are two of the five biggest hits of the series according to championship win probability added.
Since that great Game 1 performance, Realmuto is 1 for 17 with 11 strikeouts. Nick Castellanos is 3 for 20 with eight strikeouts in the World Series. Rhys Hoskins is 3 for 21 with nine strikeouts. Those three are a combined 9 for 62 (.145) with 28 strikeouts in the series and that’s including Realmuto’s Game 1 showing. The Astros have largely shut them right down.
To be fair, Realmuto and Castellanos have contributed defensively (Castellanos has been one of the worst defensive outfielders in baseball the last few years and he suddenly looks like Mookie Betts with all these sliding catches) but good defense alone isn’t enough to beat Houston . The Phillies badly need Castellanos, Hoskins, and Realmuto to provide offense and give Harper and Schwarber support. There is no path to a comeback — zero — without these three chipping in key hits in Games 6 and 7.
4. Get a little lucky
When your back is up against the wall like the Phillies, there’s no shame in asking the baseball gods for a little help. Maybe a borderline ball/strike call goes your way in a crucial at-bat, or a ground ball hugs the line and stays fair. That kind of thing. Every World Series winner in history has benefitted from good fortune somewhere along the line and the Phillies could use some right now. It’s better to be lucky than good, but it’s best to be lucky and good.