Bank on it: Phillies top Marlins in playoff opener, a win with a ring-fingered endorsement

In Philadelphia The Philadelphia Phillies crushed the Miami Marlins on a night when their boisterous ballpark at the foot of South Broad Street officially became the most difficult playoff venue in baseball history for opponents, and they also lost themselves in the hysteria of Citizens Bank Park.

It was evident when Nick Castellanos doubled off Miami Marlins starter Jesus Luzardo in the fourth inning, advanced to second, and balled his hand into a fist.

only for a middle finger to appear, thankfully the ring finger for the FCC and parents watching at home.

Castellanos claimed, “I just found myself doing it,” in the smoke-filled clubhouse of the Philadelphia Phillies, the site of a postgame smoke extravaganza. “I then wondered, did I just do that? It simply emerged.

It was evident in the eighth inning as 45,662 spectators cheered as Castellanos hooked another double and Bryce Harper rounded the bases, flipped his helmet off his head, and came across a stop sign from coach Dusty Wathan at third base.

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Immediately after, he smashed past it to score the game’s final run.

I didn’t pick up Dusty, a sorry Harper admitted. Yes, Castellanos acknowledged.

“Bryce does that all the time,” he remarked. “And nine out of ten times, he’s safe.”

Yes, it’s all happening once more: giddy South Philly audiences, a Phillies squad that combines juvenile antics with a palpable sense of unity across the clubhouse.

Last year, this combination led to the National League pennant and a season in which the World Series championship was missed by two wins.

They’re only getting started in October. However, they scored the first of what they hope will be 13 victories on their path to a title on Tuesday night with a 4-1 triumph against the Marlins in Game 1 of their NL wild-card series.

And there’s ample evidence they can be just as punishing as last year’s squad — if not more. 

Stalwarts and upstarts

In Game 1 of this best-of-three, the usual stars of recent vintage came out. Starting pitcher Zack Wheeler took a shutout into the seventh inning, struck out eight and walked none, his playoff ERA now 2.55 with an absurd strikeout-walk ratio of 41-7 in seven career starts. Castellanos had those two key doubles, Harper that wild-haired viral-ish moment, Alec Bohm drove in the first run, Bryson Stott notched an RBI and a run scored.

 

 

Yet these Phillies seem to be so much more − and not just because $300 million shortstop Trea Turner is now in the mix.

Sure, Turner had a pair of hits and two stolen bases, but the bottom of the lineup flashed a depth that makes the Phillies truly scary.

Take No. 9 hitter Johan Rojas. He’d never played higher than Class AA until the Phillies summoned him in July and were immediately taken in by his work ethic, approach and defense. Rojas took just 149 at-bats this year — and somehow racked up 2.4 Wins Above Replacement.

In Game 1, he started only because the lefty Luzardo, who struck out 208 batters this year, was on the hill. And Rojas cracked him.

In a stunning nine-pitch at-bat, Rojas fouled off pitch after pitch to lead off the third inning, sending a pair of rockets foul down the left field line before finally shortening up and smacking a single into left field.

The crowd awoke. Rojas scampered to second on a wild pitch that barely squirted away from catcher Nick Fortes. He came home on Bohm’s double. It was 1-0.

An inning later, No. 8 hitter Cristian Pache — who arrived with an all-glove, no-hit rep from Oakland in March — followed Stott’s RBI single with one of his own.

It was 3-0 and a club that saw six guys slug at least 20 home runs was winning with their ground game, and with a pair of players who did not partake in last October’s glory.

Yet are playing like veterans.

“They’re themselves. That’s the best part about them,” says Harper. “Rojas has been great for us since he’s been up here. He’s always wanting to learn, always has questions. In these moments, we have all the faith in the world in them and I think they know that.”

‘A very special group’

Rojas, who batted .302 with a .342 on-base percentage in his limited time, feels that.

“From the moment I came here in this clubhouse, they welcomed me with open arms,” Rojas, 23, said through an interpreter. “Everyone has told me to enjoy, to be myself. It’s hard not to play hard for a group of players that have embraced or welcomed me that way.

“It’s a very special group that way. Everything about tonight was awesome. I have to thank the fans for the energy they inject into us.”

Ah, yes, those fans. Stott, now in his second year, says he’s already learned to try and treat playoff games like any other. And yet, once he arrives to the park, it’s hard not to get antsy. Eventually, quelling the energy is pointless; better to feed off it.

It is a connection that begins in the clubhouse and seemingly flows through a stadium, and a city.

“There’s no cliques,” says Stott of the Phillies’ room. “There’s not three guys that don’t hang out with each other. Everybody hangs out with everybody. It’s big to just have that team mentality.

“Been saying it since last year — if you don’t get it done, someone behind you will.”

It comes out in the strangest ways sometimes, such as Castellanos’ apparently spontaneous gesture, along with other, potentially unmentionable hand gestures that seem to laud a player’s, ahem, intestinal fortitude.

Above all, it suggests a squad connected.

“That’s what this team’s all about, man,” says Harper. “We’re a family in here. It’s 40,000 people out there, plus 26. We all vibe the same way.

“We have such a great team, such good personalities that mesh with this city and this fan base.”

Philly, special

And perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Phillies are now 23-11 in postseason games at Citizens Bank Park, a .676 winning percentage that edged them ahead of the Mets’ home-field advantage at old Shea Stadium among venues that have hosted at least 30 playoff games.

They went 6-1 here last year, including three wins over San Diego in the NL Championship Series. One more win Wednesday night, and they’ll nearly replicate the path they walked last October: A date with the Braves in the NLDS, Games 3 and 4 right here.

“You can’t fake these experiences,” says Castellanos. “And no matter how talented you are, you can’t replicate a moment like the postseason, playing here in this stadium, with the electricity of the crowd.

“The fact we’ve all been down this road before, and now we start this journey again − we’re very present and very focused on what we need to do.”

Even if, amid the chaos, they’re prone to lose their minds sometimes.

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