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The M.L.B. Playoff System Isn’t the Issue. Just Look at the Phillies and Astros.

SportThe M.L.B. Playoff System Isn’t the Issue. Just Look at the Phillies and Astros.

“We feel like we’re built for these moments.” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto

PHILADELPHIA — He was puffing on a cigar that looked to be about the size of the Walt Whitman Bridge. The party beverages were still dripping off every crevice of his clubhouse and its occupants. And on the gigundous scoreboard just behind him, six words said it all:

THE PHILLIES — ON TO THE NLCS.

But as Realmuto roamed the infield of Citizens Bank Park, hugging a procession of family and friends Thursday night, he knew the big baseball story across America was not: THE PHILLIES — ON TO THE NLCS. No, what America seemed way more focused on was this:

THE BRAVES — NOT ON TO THE NLCS.

And …

THE DODGERS — ALSO NOT ON TO THE NLCS.

Not to mention …

THE ORIOLES AND RAYS — NO LONGER SCHEDULED TO PARTICIPATE IN THE ALCS

So here’s our question — and his: Why are we so obsessed with who’s not still playing in the postseason when there’s such an obvious reason that teams like Realmuto’s October behemoths, the Phillies, are still playing?

And that reason goes like this:

Surely, you must have noticed by now that October baseball is practically a whole different sport than April-to-September baseball.

So here’s an idea: Maybe we should stop looking for excuses for the teams that are heading home. Instead, let’s take a closer look at why teams such as the Phillies — and their partners in World Series crime last fall, the Astros — keep finding ways to survive and advance.

“I think there’s something special about October baseball,” Realmuto said, still wearing the glow of the Phillies’ NLDS-clinching 3-1 victory over the 104-win Braves. “And to see the teams that thrive in this environment and thrive with this much pressure, when the games mean so much, there’s so much more focus involved in the postseason.

“It’s hard to get that focus for a 162-game regular season. So to see, in my opinion, the teams that thrive here and play well in this situation, I mean, that’s what baseball is all about. That’s what you play for.”


Spencer Strider has dominated the Phillies in the regular season. But the postseason has been a different story. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

But even as he was uttering those words, there was a whole different conversation going on just a few hundred yards away, in the dejected clubhouse of the winningest team in baseball (April-September division), the Braves. You can probably guess how that one went.

It’s normal to ask what went wrong in losing clubhouses at this time of year. What never used to be normal was hopping on board with the conspiracy theory that this was somehow baseball’s fault, for devising a playoff system designed to “sabotage” the chances of the best teams in the sport (April-September division).

Well, you know who wasn’t interested in that conspiracy theory? The losing pitcher for the Braves — their ace, Spencer Strider. And good for him.

“We’re not a group that makes excuses,” Strider said. “I’m not a person that makes excuses. I’m sure there’s a lot of Braves fans out there that are not happy, and they have every right to be that way. We’ve got nobody to blame but ourselves. Me personally, I wasn’t good enough.”

Nevertheless, Strider was asked, wouldn’t a different postseason format be more fair — maybe a best-of-seven Division Series instead of best-of-five, for instance?

“No,” he replied. “I think that the people (who are) trying to use the playoff format to make an excuse for the results they don’t like are not confronting the real issue. You’re in control of your focus, your competitiveness, your energy. And if having five days off (means) you can’t make that adjustment, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself.”

So as we begin to contemplate the lessons of October (thus far), we need to start with the team America loves to hate but the team that puts every one of these conspiracy theories to rest …

THE ASTROS — So if it’s The System’s fault that the best teams lose every October, how do we explain the Astros? If those five days off that the top two seeds earn before the Division Series is such a buzz-killer (and season-killer), shouldn’t someone tell the Astros?

They got the same five days off as everyone else last October … and went out and swept their first two series anyway, and never lost a postseason game until the World Series.

Then once again this year, they won the American League West on the final day of the season, again took the same five days off as everyone else … and went out and beat the Twins in four games. So apparently, it is possible to dig into that first-round bye and still go on to bigger and better things? Huh. What do you know? That doesn’t fit everyone else’s narrative at all.


The first-round bye hasn’t stopped this Astros juggernaut. (Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

“Everyone can talk about the week off, but look at a team like Houston,” the Phillies’ Kyle Schwarber said. “They’re … back in the ALCS. So I think there’s something to be said about teams that might not have had so much success throughout the season, but when they get into moments like that, they’re finding ways to win.”

And by that, of course, he also means … his team. So let’s look at some of the October baseball lessons the Phillies teach us.

SOMETIMES THE RECORD DOESN’T REFLECT THE TALENT — The man who built the Phillies, Dave Dombrowski, has done this before. Again and again and again, in fact. He built World Series teams in Florida, Detroit and Boston, and now a fourth in Philadelphia. So he apparently knows exactly what it takes.

“Well, first of all, we have a good team,” he said Thursday night, a Champagne-sopped baseball cap turned backward on his head. “And we actually have played well for a long time. Once we got past that 25-32 start, we’ve basically been playing at a 100-win pace, and our team has kind of come together.”

Dombrowski’s team-building M.O. is no secret. He has assembled a roster led by stars, a pitching staff full of high-velocity arms and a clubhouse occupied by baseball nuts who love to play as much as they love being around each other. But when Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, was asked how much of this was by design, the product of constantly searching for players who are ready for moments like this, he laughed.

“Well, I mean, it’s hard to identify, specifically,” he said, “because if it was easy, everybody would do it.”

But it’s amazing how often, through the years, Dombrowski has used the phrase, “championship-quality player,” to define what attracted him to the latest star he’d signed or traded for. So he has spent a four-decade career proving he knows that quality when he sees it. And the 2022-23 Phillies have now spent the last two Octobers proving it.

On that note, let’s take a quick intermission to remind you of some of the things this group has done:

• It has now beaten Strider three times since last October. No other team in the sport has even handed him more than one loss in those 12 months.

• The Phillies have fed off their stadium-rocking fan base to go 10-2 at home in these last two postseasons — and an incredible 9-and-0 against the other National League playoff teams they’ve faced.

• The Braves just hit more home runs (307) this season than any lineup in the history of the NL. Then the Phillies went and outhomered them in this series, 11-3. Only once all season (in mid-September) did the Braves give up 11 runs over any four-game span.

• And that also means the Braves hit fewer home runs in this series as a team than Nick Castellanos — a man who didn’t hit a single home run for the Phillies all last postseason — pounded this week by himself, in a span of six at-bats.

• Then again, that Phillies long-ball barrage didn’t merely start this week. The Phillies have now mashed 24 home runs over their past 10 postseason home games dating back to last year. And how many other teams have bombed that many long balls over a 10-game span in postseason history? That would be none, according to our friends from STATS Perform.

• Which means, finally, that the Phillies hit more home runs in this Braves series (11) than they allowed runs (eight). And that’s the perfect transition to the next October lesson they have taught us …

COLLECT POWER ARMS (AND KEEP THEM HEALTHY) — Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez have started all six games the Phillies have played in this postseason. They’ve allowed a total of six earned runs — in six starts. That’s a 1.54 ERA. That’s how you win in October.

Meanwhile, the Phillies have rolled out their assembly line of relievers pumping upper-90s heat over those six games — and given up a total of two runs, both of them on Austin Riley’s game-winning two-run homer off Jeff Hoffman in Game 2 of the NLDS. That’s a 1.26 ERA. That, too, is how you win at this time of year.

In Game 1 of the NLDS, Phillies manager Rob Thomson orchestrated the first nine-inning, seven-pitcher shutout in franchise history. In Game 4, he waved for his two most trusted bullpen weapons, José Alvarado and Craig Kimbrel, in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively — and still had enough depth behind them to navigate to the finish line. And yes, that is how you win in October.

“You know, early in the season,” Realmuto said, “we struggled a little bit … but when you have stuff like that, like we have on our staff, once they figured it out later in the season, they started rolling. So I trust our guys’ stuff against any team in baseball. That’s an incredible lineup we just faced for four games.”

But one more thing: The Phillies also managed health and workloads so effectively this year that they somehow arrived in October with — miracle of miracles — every significant arm on their staff healthy. Compare that with the health (or lack thereof) of the Dodgers’ staff, or the Braves’ staff — and isn’t it obvious that this, too, is how you win in October?


Zack Wheeler (pictured), Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez have given the Phillies strong outings this postseason. (Dale Zanine / USA Today)

COLLECT GUYS WHO LOVE THE MOMENT — October is a parade of game-defining, team-defining moments. Isn’t it hard to recall a roster as stuffed with hitters who feed off those moments as the group the Phillies roll out there every game?

“You look at everyone on this team, and I think everyone wants the quote/unquote ‘moment,’” Schwarber said. “But when we get put in that moment, that’s a quality that’s hard to have, where everyone’s able to calm down within the craziness and really lock into the at-bat.”

So where does that calm emanate from in those moments? Well, it’s always helpful to …

BUILD AROUND A SUPERSTAR — I’ve already written one column this postseason laying out Bryce Harper’s special ability to rise to meet any moment. And Schwarber’s theory is that watching a teammate melt the pressure the way Harper does can have a powerful ripple effect on any team.

“Bryce is a great example for everyone,” Schwarber said, “to look at and watch when the moment may be the biggest and the brightest it can be. And when you look at him in the box, there’s no giddiness. You look at the (pitches he) takes. There’s nothing that’s outlandish, where you’re trying to go get something.

“You’re staying within yourself. And that’s what this team does really well is staying within themselves. And when you stay within yourselves, explosive things can happen.”


Bryce Harper sets the tone for the Phillies. (Bill Streicher / USA Today)

SO IT’S NOT APRIL, MAY, JUNE, JULY, AUGUST OR SEPTEMBER ANYMORE — The season is a marathon — a test of day-to-day grit, roster depth, system reinforcements, health and luck. It takes a village to survive the season. But it takes all the qualities we’ve just highlighted — very different qualities — to separate yourselves in October.

As Dombrowski said, if it were easy to find those qualities, every team would do it. But by now, we should know them when we see them. And Braves manager Brian Snitker was the first to admit he saw them in the Phillies.

“We got beat by a really good club,” he said Thursday night, “that has a penchant for this time of year.”

So how should we define that penchant? “There’s no magic formula,” Realmuto said. But we’re down to four teams left in our October Madness tournament. So doesn’t it make more sense to study those teams and what got them here than it does to grasp for who’s to blame that eight other teams never made it this far?

The blame game may be rattling away, off in the distance. But the Phillies? They can tune out that talk — because they’re on to the NLCS, to play a Diamondbacks team that may be as perfectly built for new-rules baseball as any offense in the sport. But now those D-Backs become the latest team to have every reason to fear the Phillies, because as we’ve mentioned, this is their time of year.

“This team just feels like we’re built for October,” Realmuto said. “Look, obviously we would love to win 100 games in the regular season. We would love to run away with the division like the Braves got to do the last six years. But at the end of the day, our goal is to win a World Series. It’s not necessarily to beat the Braves. It’s not necessarily to win the division. It’s to win a World Series.

“So now,” he said, “we know we’ve got two series down — and two more to go reach our goal.”

The Athletic’s Tyler Kepner contributed to this story.


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(Top photo of Kyle Schwarber, left, and J.T. Realmuto celebrating after the Phillies advanced to the NLCS: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)


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