By DAN GELSTON AP Sports Writer
Rob Thomson raised his bottle of bubbly for a toast in the clubhouse after the Phillies became the last team in baseball to clinch a playoff spot. The Phillies manager then went to take a swig out of his bottle and — doink! The cork was still inside.
Two wet and wild postseason parties later, Thomson has mastered the art of uncorking his bottle while steering the Phillies toward a shot at their first World Series championship since 2008.
“How many more wins?” he asked after the Phillies won their NL Division Series in four games.
“We’ve got eight more Topper!” catcher J.T. Realmuto shouted, using Thomson’s nickname.
With that, the celebration was on full blast, and the official anthem of the postseason party, “Dancing on My Own,” was cranked to 11 to kick off the fun. The Phillies sang, danced and turned empty beer boxes into cardboard hats, and cigar smoke wafted throughout the clubhouse.
And why not?
First, the Phillies dumped the 93-win, NL Central champion St. Louis Cardinals and then outscored the Atlanta Braves 17-4 in two home games that sent the defending World Series champions packing.
Up next, Games 1 and 2 of the NLCS this week against the 89-win San Diego Padres. The Phillies won only 87 games, but who cares now? The Phillies sure don’t. Not once Rhys Hoskins spiked his bat on a monster homer. Or Realmuto became the first catcher in postseason history to hit an inside-the-park home run. Or as Aaron Nola tossed October ace outing after October ace outing. Bryce Harper had the Phillies believing with three postseason homers and a staggering 8-for-16 effort in four games against the Braves.
Harper hit one more big number, even on an off day — he turned 30 on Sunday.
The Phillies did it all in Games 3 and 4 as Phillies fans packed Citizens Bank Park in numbers — and delirious noise levels that tested eardrums — not seen since the halcyon championship days of the Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard era.
“They work hard for everything they have,” Harper said of the fans. “And I’m getting chills because it fires me up, man. It makes me want to win that much more. And when they show out for us like that, it makes our team that much better. And there was 46,000 people in this stadium, plus 26 on the field. We’re all together.”
The early clinch lets the Phillies open the NLCS with their aces in order. Zack Wheeler is expected to start Game 1 on Tuesday and Nola, who took a perfect game into the seven inning in the wild-card clinching start, gets the Game 2 nod. Both pitchers should be available to start on short rest once the series shifts to Philadelphia over the weekend.
The Phillies are 5-1 to start a postseason for the first time in franchise history and the first time they have won five of six in any postseason stretch since 2009. Of course, they didn’t do much to add to those win totals after 2011.
The Phillies spent a decade in baseball purgatory and seemed destined to spend a few more years there until owner John Middleton pried Harper away from Washington in 2019 and signed the free agent to a 13-year, $330 million deal. They traded for Realmuto in 2019. They signed NL home run champion Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos to free-agent deals this season. And they swung trade-deadline deals this year for Game 4 starter Noah Syndergaard and outfielder Brandon Marsh. Marsh hit a three-run home run in Game 4.
“It’s one thing to think you can win. It’s another thing to win when you know you can win,” a drenched Middleton said in the clubhouse. “When a team comes together like that, it’s a very powerful force.”
Middleton and the Phillies give a large piece of credit to Thomson, who became only the fourth manager in major league history to take over a team at least seven games under .500 and lead it to the postseason. Thomson, the first Canadian-born manager to lead a team to the postseason, went 65-46 to finish the season.
“I don’t think any of us are shocked about where we are,” Harper said. “We’re really excited about the opportunity ahead for us, and we’ve taken every opportunity and tried to go with that. And we’re just all excited as a club and a group that we can go out to the West Coast and play.”