Phillies upset Cardinals to reach first NLDS since 2011

ST. LOUIS -- Bryce Harper arrived at Busch Stadium early Saturday afternoon with a message for all of his Philadelphia Phillies teammates.

He wanted them to know that this -- the St. Louis Cardinals' magical season, the historic careers of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina and, more specifically, the first-round wild-card series -- would end later that night. The Phillies, he told them, would not allow for a decisive Game 3.

"We're not losing," he continued to say as he went around the clubhouse.

Then he delivered.

Harper homered off a first-pitch Miles Mikolas curveball to lead off the second inning, silencing a sold-out crowd and providing all the run support a dominant Aaron Nola would need. The Phillies, who fired their manager 51 games into the season and finished third in their division, defeated the Cardinals 2-0 and advanced to a National League Division Series showdown against the Atlanta Braves.

"It's MVP-type stuff," Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins said of Harper's declaration. "Awesome."

The Cardinals, the No. 3 seed heading into this postseason, went out fighting -- thanks in large part to Pujols and Molina, whose careers came to an abrupt end.

With one on, one out and the Cardinals trailing by two runs in the eighth, Pujols smoked a line drive down the third-base line that caromed off the fence, preventing extra bases. Pujols was replaced by a pinch runner and exited to a thunderous ovation from the 48,515 in attendance, then watched Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado strike out while representing the go-ahead run.

With one on and two outs in the ninth, Molina singled to right, once again putting the tying run on base. He, too, was replaced by a pinch runner and drew a raucous salute from the fans.

Molina paced the dugout while the rest of his teammates stood along the railing, clearly emotional and finding it difficult to even watch. On the field, Zach Eflin got Tommy Edman to pop out in foul territory, ending the Cardinals' season.

"Everybody in that clubhouse is feeling it right now," Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. "It's a tough one. When you know it's Yadi's last year and Albert's last year, there's this extra motivation to deliver for them and do something special and allow that story to end with a championship, so it's obviously disappointing. But it's where we're at."

The Phillies will now face a division-rival Braves team they played against 19 times this season, losing 11 games but getting outscored by only a combined three runs. Game 1 begins Tuesday from Truist Park in Atlanta and will presumably be started by Ranger Suarez, the 27-year-old left-hander who was on tap to start Game 3 of the wild-card series if needed. Zack Wheeler and Nola, who combined to throw 13 scoreless innings in the two games, can line up for Games 2 and 3, respectively.

"It's incredible, this group of guys we've got here," Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said moments before dousing his teammates with champagne. "And I can promise you that not one person in that clubhouse is surprised at what we're doing. This is where we expected to be to start the season, and we're here and we're not done yet."

The Phillies avenged their loss to the Cardinals in the decisive game of the 2011 NLDS, which was highlighted by an epic pitchers' duel between Chris Carpenter and Roy Halladay.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, speaking before the start of this series, called that a "fork in the road." The Cardinals went on to win that year's World Series, leading up to Tony La Russa announcing his retirement and Pujols leaving to join the Los Angeles Angels. The Phillies, meanwhile, navigated a 10-year postseason drought. Their dynamic core of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, among others, aged out, triggering a rebuild that didn't bear fruit as quickly as the fan base hoped.

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 Kyle Schwarber, putting them on track to exceed baseball's luxury-tax threshold.

But they went 22-29 to begin the season, already 12½ 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.

"We just got off to a rough start," Thomson said. "Eventually we just started playing the way we thought we'd play, and we just kept playing that way. That's how I see it."

But it wasn't that simple.

The Phillies didn't just overcome a managerial change. They overcame major struggles from Castellanos, the loss of Wheeler for most of September and a prolonged absence from 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.

But Schwarber led the league in home runs, Realmuto continued to perform like the game's best catcher, Wheeler and Nola pitched like aces, and near the end, Jose Alvarado and Eflin solidified the back end of their bullpen.

This series saw Alec Bohm, the young third baseman who was famously booed by the home crowd early in the year, excel both offensively and defensively. They received encouraging contributions from David Robertson and Seranthony Dominguez, both of whom are critical to their late-game bullpen depth. But most of all, they got stellar performances from Wheeler and Nola.

Wheeler pitched 6⅓ innings of shutout baseball in Friday's Game 1, then the offense improbably strung together six ninth-inning runs -- on zero extra-base hits -- to stage a thrilling come-from-behind victory.

In Game 2, Nola followed with 6⅔ scoreless innings, giving up a leadoff single to Lars Nootbaar and then retiring 20 of the next 24 batters.

"I can promise you this -- nobody's excited to play the Phillies right now," Realmuto said. "We're in a good spot."