PHILADELPHIA -- Welcome to the World Series, Bryce Harper.
The superstar the Philadelphia Phillies brought in years ago to turn around a team stuck in mediocrity delivered one of the biggest home runs in franchise history Sunday.
Harper's two-run, rocket shot of a home run to left field in the bottom of the eighth inning gave the Phillies a 4-3 victory over the San Diego Padres in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, sending Philadelphia to its first World Series since 2009, where it will face the Houston Astros beginning Friday.
The face of the franchise, in the middle of a dominant October run, will be heading to his first Fall Classic.
Harper was named NLCS MVP after hitting .400 with two home runs and five RBIs, but it was his clinching home run that everyone will remember. Facing hard-throwing Padres reliever Robert Suarez with J.T. Realmuto on first base after a leadoff single, Harper fell behind 1-2, fouled off two 99 mph fastballs, took a changeup just low and then crushed Suarez's 98.9 mph sinker into the left-center stands.
As Harper walked up to the on-deck circle, he had some words for hitting coach Kevin Long: "I said, 'Let's give them something to remember.'"
"I didn't want to get back on that flight back to San Diego. I just didn't want to get on a 5½-hour flight," Harper said. "I wanted to hang out at home and enjoy this at home with these fans and this organization and this fan base."
He then thanked Realmuto for getting on base in front of him to make the moment possible.
"That's the reason we signed [Harper], the city loves him, and you can't say enough about the guy," said Game 5 starter Zack Wheeler, who allowed two runs over six-plus innings of work. "He just has the thing in him. He just has that in him where he steps up in big moments. I don't know, he's always been a dude. It was always fun to compete against him, but it's a lot more fun when he's on your team."
The crowd exploded. First baseman Rhys Hoskins described the scene as "pure chaos. I don't think anyone was surprised. This guy has a knack for coming up in big moments. It is what he has done his whole career. We have seen it so many times, obviously not on this stage. MV3."
The Padres had left-handed closer Josh Hader getting loose, but he wasn't yet warmed up to enter the game, according to Padres manager Bob Melvin. So Harper faced the right-handed Suarez.
"I think everybody was ready for him to face anybody who came in," Phillies pitcher Zach Eflin said. "I'm not a manager, I'm a pitcher. But you know what, it was so much fun watching J.T. get that base hit and Harper coming up after him. We knew they were in trouble."
Baseball loves its records and unique accomplishments, and here's a new one: The Phillies are the first sixth seed to reach a World Series.
The Phillies made the new expanded playoffs with 87 wins as the final NL team and ended what had been the second-longest playoff drought in the majors. Their star-laden roster thundered to life at the right time in the postseason, knocking off the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild-card series, upsetting the 101-win Atlanta Braves in the division series and eliminating the Padres in five games. They swept all three NLCS games at an electric and boisterous Citizens Bank Park to improve to 5-0 at home in the postseason.
In October, the Phillies' stars have been leading the way -- just as owner John Middleton hoped back in the winter of 2018 when he infamously said he was going to spend money in free agency "and maybe even be a little bit stupid about it."
That winter the club signed Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract. He is hitting .419 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 11 postseason games. The Phillies traded for and later re-signed as a free agent All-Star catcher Realmuto, who has two home runs and 10 runs scored. Wheeler, signed before the 2020 season, has been outstanding in October, with a 1.78 ERA across four starts. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber, signed before the 2022 season to bring a power bat to the lineup and some World Series-winning experience from his days with the Chicago Cubs to the clubhouse, also had a big NLCS with three home runs and six runs scored.
Two homegrown players also helped seal Sunday's win. Hoskins delivered another clutch home run that energized the home crowd, just as he had with his two home runs in Game 4. After Schwarber drew a two-out walk off Yu Darvish in the bottom of the third, Hoskins got ahead with a 3-0 count. He hadn't homered all season on a 3-0 count, but he unloaded on a Darvish cutter and crushed it 424 feet into the left-center seats for his fifth home run of the postseason.
Hoskins came up in 2017 -- a season the Phillies lost 96 games. During his six seasons with the Phillies, he has heard plenty about the 2008 World Series champions. He sees the photos on the walls lining the concourses at Citizens Bank Park, has seen the former stars throw out countless first pitches. Now he is heading to the World Series.
"It is the dream," Hoskins said. "As an athlete, it is all about winning. Winning makes everything better. You go 0-for-4, 0-for-5, give up a homer, Phils score more, it doesn't matter."
In the top of the ninth, after David Robertson walked two batters with one out, Game 3 starter Ranger Suarez came on in relief on one day of rest. Signed out of Venezuela in 2012, Suarez has the longest tenure in the organization of anybody on the playoff roster.
Trent Grisham oddly bunted to put runners on second and third with two outs, although that meant a hit could score two and put the Padres ahead. Suarez induced Austin Nola to fly out to right on the first pitch.
"That was awesome. I'm so happy for him," Wheeler said. "He's grinding, but I felt comfortable with him coming out of the pen. He did it a lot last year, so I knew he'd be comfortable and get the job done."
The Phillies are the sixth team since divisional play started in 1969 to reach the World Series after a midseason managerial change, the first since the 2003 Marlins. The Phillies were 22-29 on June 2 when bench coach Rob Thomson replaced Joe Girardi.
A former minor league player and coach, Thomson had been a longtime coach under Joe Torre and then Girardi with the New York Yankees before the Phillies hired him in 2018. The Phillies had lost 12 of 17 when the proverbial baseball lifer was promoted, and he immediately turned things around, winning his first eight games and going 18-8 the rest of June.
"I think our manager has a really good ability to keep things going, to keep things going the right way," Harper said after Game 4. "Never panics, never really sits there and thinks, oh, I need to move this guy or I need to move this guy. I feel like he believes in his players. I think when you have a manager like that that believes in you and has an organization that believes in you, it just makes you that much better of a player."
The Phillies' run to the World Series began with a dramatic opening win over the Cardinals in the wild-card series. Trailing 2-0 in the top of the ninth, the Phillies scored six runs to take an eventual 6-3 victory. They eliminated the Cardinals the next day and upset the Braves in four games in the division series as Harper went 8-for-16 with two home runs and five RBIs.
Against the Padres, Wheeler dominated in a 2-0 victory in Game 1, but the Phillies blew an early 4-0 lead in Game 2 -- only to return the favor when they fell behind 4-0 in the first inning of Game 4 before rallying to win 10-6 behind a four-homer outburst.
Then came Harper's dramatic home run to win Game 5.
"That's the beautiful thing about this sport," Hoskins said. "It lines up to let the best possible moment happen. There are just so many things that must go right."
Said Harper: "This is great, to be able to be the last National League team standing right now. The Philadelphia Phillies, we're here. We're ready to go in that next round. We've got four more. We're going to enjoy this as a team, as a group, but we've got four more."