Tipped pitches, a secret message from Bryce Harper? Phillies find another edge at home to take World Series lead

PHILADELPHIA — Alec Bohm, 6-foot-5 with Adonis hair and a body type best described as a cardboard cutout of Superman, is incredibly soft-spoken. Standing in the dugout after a first-pitch blast in the second inning, with the bedlam it inspired at Citizens Bank Park still echoing around him, he smiled and shrugged sheepishly. In the time it took him to round the bases, the question had become impossible to ignore.

Philadelphia Phillies fans had waited 4,747 days to watch a World Series game at home, and then they waited one more after Game 3 was postponed by rain. So Bryce Harper didn’t make them wait too much longer to give them something to roar about beyond the excitement of simply being here. With one on and two out in the bottom of the first, he swung at a first-pitch curveball from Astros pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. and sent it soaring into a sea of swirling red rally towels. Just like that, the Phillies, who had split the first two in Houston and have yet to lose at home this postseason, were up 2-0.

While Nick Castellanos batted, Harper called Bohm, who was on deck, back over to the dugout and emphatically said … well, something.

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Bohm didn’t get to bat that inning, but he led off the second by homering on a first-pitch sinker. Whatever Harper had noticed and relayed to him — a tip, a tell, something from the scouting report that seemed relevant — it worked.

So what was it?

“That’s between us,” Bohm told Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal with a smirk.

Brandon Marsh must’ve gotten the message, too, because three batters later he launched a solo shot. McCullers had surrendered home runs to three of the first nine batters he faced. By the time Dusty Baker finally made a call to the bullpen, McCullers had given up seven runs on five homers in 4 1/3 innings, the most any pitcher has surrendered in the postseason. In eight starts in the regular season, McCullers gave up just four home runs. In 18 career postseason appearances before Tuesday night, he had an ERA under 2.50.

In all, Harper, Bohm, Marsh, Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins all went yard in the 7-0 victory. So c’mon, they had to have noticed some kind of tip?

“No, nothing that we didn't go over in the pregame,” Marsh said. “Nothing in particular, just picking your spot and being aggressive.”

“This is a guy that makes his living with his breaking ball,” Hoskins said. “It's a good pitch for him, it always has been, but he gets a lot of chases with it. And for the most part, I thought we just did a really good job of getting that pitch specifically in the strike zone. And then when we got some stuff in the middle of the plate, we just didn't miss.”

“I couldn’t hear him,” said Bobby Dickerson, the Phillies infield coach. He was next to Harper in the dugout for the conversation caught on camera, but cited the crowd noise for preventing him from being better informed as a bystander. “He whispered to Bohm what he thought he saw and that was it.”

It’s not surprising or suspicious or even especially telling that the Phillies hitters kept their insights closely guarded. McCullers could pitch in a potential Game 7, after all. But Harper — the face of the franchise, the source of so much expectation in the city, the reigning NL MVP who is slugging over .800 this postseason — did say something to Bohm just as the Phillies were about to embark on a historic display of power.

“I think anytime you have information, you want to be able to give that to your teammates at any point,” Harper said.

And did it help?

“Maybe,” Bohm said with that same smirk again.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - NOVEMBER 01:  Bryce Harper #3 of the Philadelphia Phillies crosses home plate and points to the crowd after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning during Game 3 of the 2022 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, November 1, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Bryce Harper crosses home plate and points to the crowd after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning during Game 3 of the 2022 World Series. (Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Dickerson’s alibi, about how the unrelenting din made it impossible to hear conversations happening mere feet away, is an airtight one. Talking about how great was that crowd tonight? is a little hokey. Every fanbase is elated to host a postseason game — especially the self-selecting group that ponies up for World Series tickets. Whether it’s taking stock of a series or celebrating a win, homefield advantage is an easy narrative that’s usually overstated. Coming into this postseason, home teams won 54.7% of playoff games. It’s better to bat last and sleep in your own bed, but the numbers don’t exactly reflect a huge difference in results.

“In Philly they do,” Matt Vierling interjected to say when he heard that sentiment postgame. And he’s right.

Of teams that have hosted at least 20 postseason games in their current ballpark, the Phillies have the best record; they’re 21-9 (.700) all-time at Citizens Bank Park. This year, they’re undefeated at home in the postseason.

Even before the barrage of home runs, the crowd was on its feet. The fans had barely begun booing Astros leadoff hitter José Altuve before he smacked a blooper into right field that Castellanos snagged on a sliding catch — the first of 27 outs the Phillies would need to win the game. The crowd responded with such fervor that Phillies shortstop Bryson Stott said he felt the whole stadium reverberate.

“I think it took them until the eighth inning to sit down,” Hoskins said.

At that point, Phillies owner John Middleton was still anxious. He said postgame that he wasn’t quite comfortable enough to enjoy himself until the ninth. That’s when the seven-run lead started to look like a win was truly imminent.

During the regular season, Middleton spends games roaming the bleachers, signing autographs, stopping for photos, handing out tickets to fans who adore him for how badly he wants to win. That obsession has borne a team full of rootable rookies and superstar ringers, one that was built for unsubtle wins like Tuesday night. But it also makes it difficult to watch helplessly from the sidelines once they’ve taken the field.

“During the playoffs,” Middleton said recently, “it's so intense I kind of retreat to a box.”

Years ago, he was talking to another owner and marveled about the inherent masochism of watching your team — for him, it’s literal, but the experience is one any fan can relate to — play postseason baseball.

“The reward for success in the postseason is more pressure and more stress. I said, ‘You win and you go face another challenge and you get more stressed out and there's more pressure,’” Middleton said. “The only way it ends positively is if you win the World Series.”

His Phillies — Philly’s Phillies — are two wins away from doing just that. They have two more games at Citizens Bank Park this week. Win those, and they’ll be the first team to clinch a championship at home in nine years, since the Boston Red Sox did it in 2013. Win those, and they’ll be the first pennant-winning-or-better team to go undefeated at home in the postseason in 14 years. The last team to do that? The 2008 Phillies.