'I don't think we're faking it': Underdogs no more, big-spending Phillies' wild ride carries on

PHILADELPHIA – Another juggernaut got dismissed here Thursday night, the 104-win Atlanta Braves once again meeting their end at Citizens Bank Park. The 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers are home, the 101-win Baltimore Orioles not yet ready for prime time, and any notion of “top seeds” still alive in this made-for-TV tournament masquerading as the baseball playoffs is pretty much dead.

The Philadelphia Phillies play on, a concept the man who laid out more than $1 billion in salary to produce a club that’s equal parts talented, tough and together tries not to overanalyze.

“I think luck has to be a factor in life,” John Middleton, a man worth an estimated $3.7 billion and assembler of this baseball bacchanalia in South Philly, was saying in the wee hours of Friday morning, streams of champagne and Anheuser-Busch products trickling by him.

“And if anybody who’s successful doesn’t acknowledge that luck has played a part in their success, I think they’re just not paying attention to reality.”

Reality is suddenly this for Middleton and the club he owns: The Phillies are advancing to the National League Championship Series for the second consecutive year, will be heavily favored to defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks and claim back-to-back NL pennants, and somehow have turned a pair of unsettling baseball trends on their ear.

And much of it almost certainly wasn’t luck.

Spending big bucks on talent doesn’t work out? (As the Mets, Padres and Yankees discovered that this year).

Since 2019, Middleton has committed $1.04 billion to Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler, Kyle Schwarber, Nick Castellanos and Trea Turner. All took their “welcome to Philly” lumps – and have come out the better for it.

Superstars don’t correlate with playoff success?

Well, just ask the Braves how that’s working out in Philly.

Thursday night in NLDS Game 4, the Phillies sent the NL’s possible Cy Young Award winner, Spencer Strider, and likely MVP, Ronald Acuña Jr., home for the winter behind the brilliance of their own, well-heeled stalwarts.

Bryce Harper celebrates in the Phillies' clubhouse after clinching the NLDS.
Bryce Harper celebrates in the Phillies' clubhouse after clinching the NLDS.

In their series-ending 3-1 victory, Castellanos, signed to a $100 million deal in March 2022, hit a pair of home runs for the second consecutive night – the first person in playoff history to pull that off – including a game-tying shot that eerily resembled his Game 3 equalizer.

Turner, the final piece of the puzzle, a $300 million shortstop that GM Dave Dombrowski, Middleton and Harper just had to have, had a perfect night: Two singles, a double, a go-ahead home run in the fifth.

As for Harper?

Middleton planted his flag with the then 26-year-old, signing him to a $330 million contract that preceded all the rest. It took four years, but what Harper’s done to Atlanta the past two postseasons almost defies belief:

Fourteen hits in 29 at-bats, five home runs – two in a stunning Game 3 revenge game – and 10 RBI.

Strangely enough, Middleton just kept coming with his checkbook – all the while adding players seemingly as relentless as his spending.

Adding Castellanos to the mix was poignant, in some ways. It reunited the longtime Detroit Tiger with Dombrowski, the GM who drafted him in Detroit, along with former Team USA teammate Harper, roomies in Venezuela as teens, Brave-killers in Philly as adults.

They shared a moment Thursday night, after Castellanos tied the game with a booming shot off Strider and later ended his night with a 112-mph rocket, the hardest-hit ball in his career.

“I said to Casty, that’s why you’re here,” Harper said in the postgame clubhouse. “That’s why I wanted you here. Because of those big moments. That’s what we were doing when we were 16, 17 years old playing in big tournaments.”

Says Castellanos: “I remember him saying like, hey, we are the next A-Rod and Jeter combo. And obviously we're not in their category yet. Derek has five championships, but it's cool.”

They’re working on it.

Nick Castellanos celebrates Trea Turner's home run in the fifth inning of Game 4.
Nick Castellanos celebrates Trea Turner's home run in the fifth inning of Game 4.

The Phillies will roll out Wheeler and Aaron Nola in NLCS Games 1 and 2 and will welcome the Diamondbacks to a ballpark where they’re now 26-11 in the postseason – 10-2 in this two-year run.

The Braves, the Padres, the Marlins – they’ve all discovered in the past two years how hard it is when Citizens Bank is in full throat, as it was with 45,831 on hand for Game 4. It makes sense: By the time a club acclimates to this atmosphere, the series is over.

After all, it took all the Philly stars time.

Castellanos acknowledged that year one last year moved too quickly. Harper even had a rough couple months way back in 2019. And Turner famously played so below his standards in this, his first season in Philly, that the notoriously angry masses decided to turn tail and give him a midseason standing ovation.

Just to get his head right.

It worked: Turner finished the year strongly and perhaps reinforced his belief that failure is nothing to fear.

The NLDS was a nice microcosm: Turner made two errors in a crushing Game 2 loss, and Harper finished it with a baserunning misadventure that created plenty of talk the past three days.

Harper and Turner’s response in Games 3 and 4? Nine hits in 15 at-bats, four homers, potential sainthood in Pennsylvania.

“You gotta move on. And I think we've been really good at that,” says Turner. “We have the right clubhouse for that. And you're not going to be perfect throughout the season. You're not going to be perfect in the postseason.

“It's being able to move on and pick each other up. So we got a good group, man. I think that's the only way to put it is someone messes up, so what. We can fix it. We can overcome it. And I think that belief is true. I don't think we're faking it.”

Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos celebrate on the field after the Game 4 win.
Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos celebrate on the field after the Game 4 win.

Again, Middleton believes there’s nothing coincidental about that. He believes he and Dombrowski are sterling judges of character, and the recent evidence is hard to dispute.

“Ultimately, when we handed Harper $330 million guaranteed, he was going to respond,” Middleton said of his bell cow. “Bryce looked at that contract and said, I need to live up to this. I need to earn this. As opposed to, I’ve earned it, now I can coast. I’ve got it made.

“And that’s what I think has helped us: Every time we look to sign these guys we ask – what is their character? How are they going to fit in? We make a lot of effort to talk to players, talk to coaches, to make sure they’re going to fit in here.”

As for the early struggles? Middleton is quick to credit the fans for providing both accountability and full-throated support when his stars struggle – along with internal support in the clubhouse.

“Let’s give the fans some credit for that,” Middleton says of Castellanos’ and Turner’s trial periods. “The passion of the Philadelphia fans is unmatched. And when you channel passion positively, it’s an extraordinary motivating force.

“Passion, when directed negatively, is a really corrosive force. These guys stood up and supported Nick, supported Trea, supported Bryce.”

If there’s a unifying theme for both smaller-market teams and analytically inclined big-budget clubs like the Dodgers, it’s that the aim is to provide your team a chance to win in as many years as possible. The Phillies’ approach feels much more scorched earth – see a need, sign a guy, fill the hole.

At some point, the spigot will be turned down, if not totally off. The Phillies are getting close to their ideal, a gritty but wildly talented club that’s both entertaining and successful.

Monday, they’ll take aim at the Diamondbacks, and perhaps will get a revenge date with the Houston Astros in the World Series.

If they fall short, it certainly won’t be for lack of effort – from the owner’s suite to the front office, from the grandstands to the clubhouse, all the factors combining to shoo away the bad playoff mojo that’s befallen so many titans of the game this autumn.

“Winning teams find ways to win,” says Harper, shirtless and clad in socks amid the Phillies’ booming celebratory playlist.

“At all costs.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phillies' wild MLB playoff ride continues to NLCS by defeating Braves