HOUSTON -- The Philadelphia Phillies came to Minute Maid Park for Game 1 of a World Series they weren't supposed to make, found themselves in a five-run hole against the best pitcher in the American League this year, erased the deficit with singles and doubles so foreign in this home run-happy postseason, almost lost the game in the ninth inning until a guy regarded by defensive metrics as the game's single worst fielder over the past decade made an incredible sliding catch, went ahead with the first extra-innings home run by a catcher in a World Series game since Carlton Fisk waved the ball fair in 1975 and finished with a 37-year-old registering a save shaky enough to trick a seismograph.
"Pretty normal for us," Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm said following an another anything-but-ordinary win, this one a rollicking, come-from-behind 6-5 victory that handed the Houston Astros their first loss of the postseason, flipped home-field advantage to Philadelphia and continued an October of the inconceivable.
At the beginning of the month, the Phillies were an afterthought, the worst of the 12 playoff teams this season by record, cannon fodder for the St. Louis Cardinals. Until the Phillies weren't. Up next were the Atlanta Braves, who finished 14 games ahead of Philadelphia in the National League East division. The Phillies throttled them. By the time the NLCS rolled around, the Phillies were that rare sort of dangerous: talented and with nothing to lose. And when they vanquished the Padres there, they set their eyes on Houston, a seemingly impermeable baseball-playing machine that was rolling along until they got Phillied.
Once the Phillies recovered from the shock of Aaron Nola getting tagged for five runs in the first three innings, they chipped away against Houston ace Justin Verlander to tie it. For the second time this month, Nick Castellanos made a diving catch looking absolutely nothing like Nick Castellanos, this one to save Jeremy Pena from driving in Jose Altuve, which would have ended the game in the bottom of the ninth. J.T. Realmuto, who'd worn a foul tip hard off his catcher's mask earlier, poked a home run just over the right-field fence to unknot the game. And David Robertson, who barely pitched over the previous three seasons, stranded a pair of runners in scoring position. Once again, the Phillies reminded us all that impossible is a construct they refuse to even acknowledge.
"You can sit there saying, 'Oh, Justin Verlander's on the mound. No way we come back now,'" Bohm said. "'Oh, their bullpen doesn't give up any runs. Yup, 5-0. Let's go quit, get on the bus, come back, start over tomorrow.'
"Well, you might as well think you're going to come back and win. 'Cause what if you do?"
It has been an October of what-if-you-dos for the Phillies.
What if you're down 2-0 and facing Ryan Helsley, St. Louis' untouchable closer, in the first game of the postseason? You put up six runs in the ninth and win.
What if a team decides to intentionally walk a guy who's 0-for-18 in the postseason ahead of you? Hit a home run, like Rhys Hoskins did in Game 3 of the division series against Atlanta, and spike the bat to rile up the jawn even more.
What if you're outmatched on a pitch? Be like Jean Segura, who twice in this postseason has moved his body like a contortionist and wielded his bat with artistry -- up or down or inside or outside, because this is the postseason, and as long as the Phillies win, it doesn't need to be pretty.
What if you're down 4-0 in the first inning of an NLCS game? Tie it that inning, like the Phillies did in Game 4, and then win the game, because why wouldn't you? This sort of thing starts to feel like something special, so when Bryce Harper hits the home run of his life in Game 5, a go-ahead job that turns Citizens Bank Park upside down, it's just a reminder: It is.
"What a team, man," Nola said. "I mean, things you don't expect happen, right? Defense, offense, pitching. Everything."
It was everything in Game 1. The Phillies arrived in Houston this week nearly 2-to-1 underdogs. The coronation of the 106-win Astros, nearly 20 games better than the Phillies during the season, would begin in front of nearly 43,000 at Minute Maid who screamed at Kyle Tucker's first home run that staked Houston a lead and went hoarse for the second that made it 5-0 an inning later.
Verlander's meltdown came in two phases. The first, with two outs in the fourth inning, saw a Hoskins single, Harper single, Castellanos single and Bohm double plate three runs. An inning later, as Brandon Marsh doubled and Kyle Schwarber walked to begin the fifth, not a fresh arm stirred in the Astros' bullpen, with manager Dusty Baker trusting his ace. Verlander frittered away the belief when Realmuto plated Marsh and Schwarber on a double to left-center field that preceded what wound up as the game-winning homer.
What the Phillies are doing makes no sense and all the sense in the world. They've been a middling, disappointing team for the entirety of the Harper epoch, which dates back three years, but this is baseball, the sport in which mediocrity can transform into excellence overnight.
The best team doesn't always win, and not even the Phillies themselves would suggest they're necessarily better than the Astros over a full season. But seven games -- why not? After another road win to kick off a playoff series (four Game 1s away from Citizens Bank, four Game 1 victories)? And with Zack Wheeler on the mound Saturday for Game 2? With three games at Citizens Bank and the obscene ticket prices and wild crowds that will accompany them?
Here's the secret they happily shout to the rafters: They can be better than the Astros now -- and they're becoming more and more convinced that they are.
"You just keep playing, because no matter what the ending is, what the score is," Bohm said, "anything can happen."
Over the course of a month, something nascent has grown into an all-consuming identity for this merry band of clowns who just so happened to figure out how to win baseball games at precisely the right time. And if that sounds so trite, so cliché, so positively Philadelphia, so very sports -- maybe it is.
Or maybe this will be the end of the Phillies' magical run, where the Astros turn on their whole Death Star vibe and harsh Philadelphia's buzz. Hopefully it's something different from either of those polar ends. If it's something that can be repeated -- Game 1's tension, its high-quality play, all of the things we seek in October -- it will make for a World Series that's going to be a lot better, and a lot closer, than anyone outside of Philadelphia believed.