PHILADELPHIA — Standing atop the stage wheeled out to honor their National League championship, the Arizona Diamondbacks looked out on a smattering of sad souls who refused to go home.
This was what the vaunted Phillies crowd had been reduced to. Day after day, before and after every game, Arizona players and coaches were asked about this raucous environment.
What was the challenge of playing here? How could they overcome the best home-field advantage in baseball? Would this young core be fazed?
That crowd was now shredded to a couple of hundred solemn stragglers after Arizona’s 4-2 NLCS Game 7 victory. Some watched in disbelief. Others screamed insults and obscenities.
“No one cares about Arizona,” one fan bellowed.
“Let’s go Rangers,” others chanted.
Tommy Pham watched from the front of the pack onstage, his phone out, smiling as he filmed their faces.
“Success is revenge,” Pham said from the clubhouse an hour later. “We’ve been counted out since the first series.”
Every team that reaches this point in the season loves to say it was doubted. It’s one of sport’s great clichés. For the Diamondbacks, it rings true. They had the worst record of any playoff team and a negative run differential over 162 games. They’ve been the underdog throughout the postseason. When they say no one outside their clubhouse believed this was possible, they’re not wrong.
Just two years ago, they entered the season planning to be competitive. Instead, they lost 110 games. That wasn’t a tank job. It was an unexpected failure of epic proportions. And one from which they had to pick up the pieces.
They’re now going to the World Series, a thought that very recently seemed beyond comprehension.
“I’ve thought about it (tonight) 100 times. I’ve thought about it 110 times,” manager Torey Lovullo said when asked if his mind has wandered back to that painful 2021 season. “I can’t wrap my arms around it. We’re a small-market organization, and we’ve done it from within.”
The Phillies are not a small-market team. Their $246 million payroll is more than twice that of Arizona. And this was not expected to be a competitive series.
Through the first two games, it was clear why. In Game 1, two of the first five pitches Phillies hitters saw soared out of the park. The following night was a 10-0 laugher.
Ticket prices on the secondary market for Arizona’s home games dropped dramatically. Garrett Stubbs, Philadelphia’s backup catcher, joked about making a “beeline” for the D-Backs’ pool in center field after clinching in their ballpark.
“I don’t look at the betting lines very often, but we were like plus-200,” veteran third baseman Evan Longoria said. “Basically like, we shouldn’t even show up. We have MLB Network on in here 24 hours. We’re seeing what people are saying about us.”
As Tuesday night’s game wore on, it once again looked like Arizona’s season was on the brink. In the fourth inning, it appeared starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt was unraveling. A walk, double and first-pitch frozen-rope single put the Phillies up 2-1. They were threatening for more.
The Phillies lineup has always been inevitable. So this budding breakout wasn’t a surprise. A night after getting shut down, this tide appeared to be the turning point for a team of destiny.
Instead, Pfaadt struck out two batters to escape the jam. Then a combination of Joe Mantiply, Ryan Thompson, Andrew Saalfrank, Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald combined to throw five shutout innings.
“The Brewers were supposed to beat us. The Dodgers were supposed to beat us. The Phillies were supposed to beat us,” said Thompson, who was released by the Tampa Bay Rays earlier this year but has since become a critical reliever in this Arizona run. “They’re gonna say that the Rangers are supposed to beat us, too. We’ll see how it goes.”
The clubhouse celebration was complete mayhem. General manager Mike Hazen was in the middle of it all, with players and staff taking turns dousing the architect who had brought them all this moment. Christian Walker walked around with a wooden cigar box, handing them out as a small visitors clubhouse progressively got smokier.
Bench coach Jeff Bannister emerged behind the tarp-covered walls wearing a white “Snakes Alive” shirt. Sewald, standing off to the side, was surprised as his teammates approached him with a gray, tin bucket full of beer and just dumped it on him, redefining what a beer shower looks like.
So many of these players and coaches had been counted out at one time or another. Walker was designated for assignment three times before landing in Arizona. Bannister was fired as the Rangers manager then couldn’t get hired anywhere for years. Arizona was Longoria’s only concrete contract offer last winter.
Now here they and the Diamondbacks are, on top of the baseball world. A best-of-seven chance upcoming for baseball immortality.
“We walked through some junk to get here,” ace Zac Gallen said. “And those guys that have been here to balance us the last two, three years, it’s paid off.”
Coaches don’t often admit to hearing outside noise. But Lovullo is different. He stated proudly that he kept receipts of those who doubted his team.
After the series went back to Philadelphia, famous radio host Chris “Mad Dog” Russo was so assured that Philadelphia would take care of business that he promised to retire if Arizona won two road games.
“I would love to see him quit if we won today,” Lovullo said before the game. “There’s nothing better than a wise guy New Yorker saying something and then having to chomp on those words.”
These D-Backs are making everyone eat their words. And enjoying it.
The Phillies were the story of the playoffs, until they weren’t. They connected with the city in a way few teams truly can — transcending typical sports fandom in a tangible way.
Then a ragtag team of no-names came in and changed the narrative. All that those Philly fans had left was to yell and scream and say that no one cared. The Diamondbacks didn’t seem to mind.
“This is what we want. This is where we want to be. This is where we want to play,” Hazen said as music blared in the clubhouse. “If we want to win, then we have to go through places like this. And we were able to do it.”
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(Photo of Jose Herrera and his Diamondbacks teammates in the victorious clubhouse: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)