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‘He’s our heart and soul’: Phillies continue turnaround season under interim manager Rob Thomson

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Philadelphia Phillies vs St. Louis Cardinals Game 2 National League wild card series

Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm (28) and Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Edmundo Sosa (33) jump into each other's arms after winning the clinching game of the National League wild card series between the Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Before bottles were popped, champagne was sprayed, and a literal bell was rang following a wild card series-clinching celebration inside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium late Saturday night, Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson wanted to make a point to his ball club. He wanted to make it clear their job wasn’t finished yet.

“We’ve got 11 games to win. You got to take one at a time,” Thomson said after the clubhouse celebration. “You can't get too far ahead of yourself. But the goal is, at the end of the year, you win the World Series. That's what everybody's goal is, right?”

The Phillie’s goal remains alive after a 2-0 win over the Cardinals in Game 2 of the National League Wild Card. The next step in what has been a turnaround season for a Phillies team that includes stars like Bryce Harper, who hit a 435-foot homer on Saturday, will take them to Atlanta. That’s where they will play the reigning World Series champion Braves in the National League Division Series starting on Tuesday.

And with that comes the necessity to pivot.

“They score runs,” Thomson said of the Braves. “They got good starting pitching. They got a good bullpen. They're well run. ... Very well run. Just a lot like this team; the Cardinals are good ball club. Atlanta is a good ball club and they're the defending world champions. Until we beat them, they're the world champions.”

But for Philadelphia, things weren’t always headed that way.

When Thomson was promoted from Phillies bench coach to manager on June 3 after Joe Girardi was relieved of his duties, the Phillies were 22-29 and 5 1/2 games behind of the last National League Wild Card spot. The Phillies, who FanGraphs projected on opening day to have a 60.9% chance of making the playoffs, struggled on defense to the tune of 32 errors in 51 games and had a 10-18 record when playing teams with a record above .500.

Under Thomson’s guidance since then, the Phillies finished the 2022 regular season with a 65-46 record. They improved their fielding percentage as a team from .983 to .991. And, most notably, they ended their 11-year postseason drought.

“He's a baseball lifer,” third baseman Alec Bohm said of Thomson. “He's at the field before anyone.  … He's our heart and soul. He's just steady every day. Keeps us calm. Keeps us right where we need to be. He pushes the right buttons. Does what he needs to do. And I think he's the right man to lead us.”

Pushing the right buttons with his bullpen helped Thomson extend the Phillies' season for at least three more games beyond Saturday. Behind starter Aaron Nola and relievers Jose Alvarado, Seranthony Dominguez, and Zach Eflin, the Phillies silenced the Cardinals' biggest bats in Game 2.

Nola, who started the Phillies' playoff-clinching win on Oct. 3 against the Astros, spun 6 2/3 scoreless innings and kept the Cardinals to four hits and one walk. He allowed a leadoff single against Cardinals center fielder Lars Nootbaar in the first inning, then retired 12 of the next 13 batters he faced.

The 29-year-old worked his way through trouble in the sixth inning when he struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, the heart of the Cardinals’ order, back-to-back to strand a runner on first.

“Obviously I knew what the stakes were, but I wanted to stay within myself and not try to do anything I haven’t done all year,” Nola said of his outing. “J.T. (Realmuto), he’s called great games all year long and especially tonight.”

After Alvarado pitched a scoreless 2/3 of an inning, Dominguez repeated what Nola did. He struck out Goldschmidt and Arenado back-to-back to end the eighth inning with runners on first and second base to preserve the lead built by Harper’s solo homer and a sacrifice fly from Kyle Schwarber in the fifth inning.

“Huge outs by the bullpen,” Nola said.

In the process, they eliminated the team that ended their World Series hopes during the 2011 playoffs. The last out, a pop-up in foul territory near the front of the steps of the Phillies dugout, clinched the Phillies’ first playoff series win since 2010. On the receiving end was a player who joined the Phillies from the Cardinals in a midseason trade.

“It’s always a special moment to catch the final out of the game,” former Cardinal and current Philadelphia infielder Edmundo Sosa said in Spanish. “The moment doesn’t matter. The situation doesn’t matter. Simply, it’s just a beautiful moment.”

The win was just another moment added to their turnaround season.

“The heart and soul we have in this team. The heart and soul we have in this organization,” a champagne-soaked Harper said. “We’re going to keep going.”

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