ST. LOUIS – The Phillies wasted no time taking their raucous celebration from the infield at Busch Stadium, where the Cardinals had trudged off to mourn the end of an era, into the visiting clubhouse, where the champagne flowed freely and Calum Scott's “Dancing On My Own” pounded through the speakers.
After more than a decade in baseball's wilderness, Philadelphia had finally won another postseason series.
It took Aaron Nola pitching four-hit ball into the seventh inning, an early home run from Bryce Harper and some gutsy performances out of the bullpen. But when Zach Eflin retired Tommy Edman to leave the tying run on base, the Phillies had squeezed out a 2-0 victory over the Cardinals on Saturday night for a sweep of their National League wild-card series.
“Everybody in that clubhouse, on this team, in this organization is super excited,” Nola said. “Just a bunch of unselfish guys, doing whatever it takes to win a ballgame, no matter what it is. It's a lot of excitement.”
Long known for his September struggles, Nola proved to be an October ace. The unflappable right-hander struck out six and walked one on 101 pitches before leaving with two outs in the seventh. Jose Alvarado then retired longtime St. Louis star Yadier Molina on a popup, stranding a runner on first.
Then in the eighth, Seranthony Dominguez struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado to wiggle out of a two-on, one-out jam — the leading contenders for NL MVP were a combined 1 for 15 in the series with no RBIs and six strikeouts.
With one final chance in the ninth, the Cardinals got consecutive two-out singles from Corey Dickerson and Molina. But Eflin, the Phillies' starter-turned-closer, responded by getting Edman to foul out, giving Philadelphia its first postseason series win since topping Cincinnati in the 2010 divisional round.
The Phillies will face a familiar foe, the NL East champion Braves, beginning Tuesday night in Atlanta.
“Our players, they love being in this situation,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson, who took over a struggling club when Joe Girardi was fired early in the season. “And that's what I'm really proud about. There's so many guys that never played in the playoffs and they played really well. The moment didn't get the best of them and I'm really happy about that.”
Miles Mikolas allowed two runs and two hits for St Louis before leaving with two outs in the fifth. Albert Pujols had a pair of singles, including one in the eighth in what was likely the final at-bat of his career, while Molina had gone 0 for 3 before his own single in the last time he will don a Cardinals uniform.
“This was never about me coming back here,” Pujols said. "This was about an organization that opened the door for me to finish my career here. My mission was always to help this ballclub to win every day.”
The sellout crowd of 48,515, the third-largest in Busch Stadium history, was at its flag-waving throatiest trying to keep the Cards' dream season alive. Instead, their fans watched the NL Central champions go down with a whimper, losing in the first round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
“It's a tough one, when you know it's Yadi's last year and Albert's last year," Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “There's just extra motivation to deliver for them, and do something special, and allow that story to end with a championship.”
'It's obviously disappointing," Marmol said, "but it's where we're at.”
Harper, who was hitless in the opener, staked the Phillies to the lead when a 76 mph curveball left his bat at 111.6 mph on the first pitch of the second inning. The ball sliced through the cold October breeze and landed 435 feet away.
The way pitchers have dominated the wild-card round, it figured Harper's one mighty swing might be the difference.
“I didn’t play well at all. That’s what I look at,” Goldschmidt said. "If I could have played better, maybe we could’ve won at least one of them, if not both of them. That’s disappointing.”
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. The next blemish on the right-hander's line didn't come until Edman walked in the third, and Nola promptly struck out Nootbaar and got Pujols on a meekly hit grounder to end that inning.
Nola also got some spectacular defense behind him.
Third baseman Alec Bohm made a stellar snare of Molina's sharply hit ball down the line leading off the third, and then he made an even more impressive grab to rob Arenado of extra bases in the fourth.
Bohm followed that with a ground-rule double leading off the fifth. Brandon Marsh laid down a sacrifice bunt and, after Jean Segura was plunked by the last pitch that Mikolas threw, Jordan Montgomery walked Bryson Stott on four pitches to load the bases. Kyle Schwarber followed with a sacrifice fly to extend the Philadelphia lead.
The Phillies' baserunning? That wasn't nearly as good.
Harper was thrown out trying to take second base on a single in the sixth — the call stood after a video review. Moments later, Bohm was picked off first base with a runner standing on third to end the once-promising inning.
The way Nola and his bullpen was pitching, none of it ended up mattering.
“We played the game the right way,” Thomson said. “We had good pitching. We have really good defense. We had a lot of unselfish at-bats, you know, guys giving themselves up, bunting runners over from second to third with nobody out to try and score extra runs. It was a complete team effort. And I’m really proud of them.”
The sweep gives the Phillies an extra day off before heading to Atlanta, where they were 3-6 in the regular season against the defending World Series champions. The Braves won 11 of their 19 meetings overall this season.
“We know them very well,” Bohm said. “We're going to go over there and it's going to be some competitive baseball.”
The Cardinals head into an offseason of pronounced change: Pujols and Molina have said this will be their last year, and erstwhile ace Adam Wainwright could join them in retirement. Arenado could opt out of his contract, though that appears unlikely, while pitcher José Quintana and outfielder Dickerson are eligible for free agency.
“I’ll tell you this,” Wainwright said, "I don’t like not pitching in a playoff series. You can take that one of two ways: You can take that as it’s been a good run or you can take that as motivation to never let that happen again.”
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