-YEAR By Peter Gleason

The road to the National League Division series against the Braves, starting Tuesday in Atlanta, has been long and winding for the Phillies.

Joe Girardi replaced Gabe Kapler as the manager for the start of the 2020 season and Dave Dombrowski took over as the head of baseball operations a year later.

But the Phillies continued to fade down the stretch and blow opportunities at the playoffs. The stakes were further ratcheted up heading into 2022, when the Phillies splurged a combined $179 million on Nick Castellanos and Schwarber, putting them on track to exceed baseball’s luxury-tax threshold.

They began this season with a 22-29 record, already 12 1/2 games back in the NL East, prompting Dombrowski to replace Girardi with bench coach Rob Thomson.

Under Thomson’s calm demeanor, the Phillies suddenly took off, winning 14 of their next 16 games. By the end of August, they were 15 games above .500 and in firm position in the NL Wild Card standings. They lost 10 of their last 14 in September, putting them at risk of losing a spot to the Milwaukee Brewers, but they won three of their first four in October to finally clinch.

The Phillies overcame a managerial change; major struggles from Castellanos, a prolonged absence from the reigning NL MVP, Harper, who missed about two months because of a thumb injury and was relegated to designated hitter for most of the year because of a troublesome elbow; and the loss of their ace, Zack Wheeler, for most of September.

But Schwarber led the league in home runs; J.T. Realmuto continued to perform like the game’s best catcher; Wheeler and Aaron Nola once again provided them with a dynamic pairing at the top of their rotation; and Jose Alvarado and Zach Eflin emerged as a strong back-end duo.

“It was a lot of challenges thrown at us over the course of the year, where I don’t know that I’ve ever been part of a team or something like that that has gone that many ways against us,” Schwarber said before the start of the playoffs. “I think the biggest thing that you can be proud of is you see how this whole group came together closer, because that was the only way that we were gonna be able to keep us in the hunt.”

In Friday’s Game 1, the Phillies got a strong performance from Wheeler and improbably strung together six ninth-inning runs — on zero extra-base hits — to stage a thrilling come-from-behind victory, stunning a sold-out Busch Stadium crowd. In Game 2, Nola turned in the latest brilliant outing, giving up a single to Lars Nootbaar to lead off the game before blowing through the rest of the St. Louis lineup.
Philadelphia will now face a familiar foe, the NL East champion Braves, when their division series begins Tuesday night in Atlanta.

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