Ryan Howard swung and stumbled, belly flopped onto the dirt, then hobbled a step or two before he crumpled to the ground in pain. He sat with his head down while a swarm of St. Louis Cardinals buzzed past him and celebrated their clinching win in the 2011 NL Division Series at Citizens Bank Park.
With one final swing of the season, Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies went down in a heap.
Howard, the once-feared slugger and 2006 NL MVP, never regained his 40-homer, 100-RBI form.
The Phillies never recovered their postseason greatness, either.
For 11 years, Howard’s groundout in the season’s final at-bat served as a flashpoint for a franchise that briefly ruled the NL East, only to fall into a chasm of bad baseball and meaningless Septembers. The Phillies run of five straight postseason appearances — that included the 2008 World Series championship and 2009 NL pennant — ended with Howard needing help off the field after a 1-0 loss to Chris Carpenter and the eventual champion Cardinals.
Howard’s injury in a way became symbolic for a team that limped through most of the last decade with dwindling fan support, the wrong managers, incompatible rosters and wide-open calendars in October.
Well, look who’s back in Philly.
About 4,025 days later, the Phillies are indeed home for a playoff game when they face Atlanta in Game 3 of the NLDS on Friday. It’s certainly been a long time — their big slugger now, two-time MVP Bryce Harper, hadn’t even made his major league debut when Howard tumbled.
The series is tied – and Citizens Bank Park underwent a worthy postseason makeover. The playoff logos were painted on the field and bunting wafted from the concourse. Concession stand signs advertised Red October punch, $15.99 for a concoction of vodka, lemonade and juices. Even Howard was represented with a chicken sandwich named The Big Piece, in honor of his nickname, that comes served on a sweet Hawaiian bun.
Did someone say Hawaiian?
Shane Victorino, better known as the Flyin’ Hawaiian and key cog on those championship teams, will throw the first pitch Friday.
The Phillies, though, don’t want to live in the past. The present has been pretty good for the NL wild-card team that knocked off the Cardinals in the wild card series and took Game 1 against Atlanta.
In a faint link to the glory days, Aaron Nola gets the Game 3 start. Nola is the longest-tenured Phillie and made his debut in 2015, when Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz wound down their tenures in Philly. And what did they tell Nola about the playoff atmosphere in Philly?
“They said it’s something special,” Nola said Thursday.
The Braves, who won Game 2 behind six shutout innings from Kyle Wright, did not name a starter for Game 3. The Braves are expected to send either right-hander Charlie Morton (9-6, 4.34) or rookie righty Spencer Strider (11-5, 2.67) to the mound. Strider hasn’t pitched since Sept. 18 because of an oblique injury. Manager Brian Snitker said Thursday the final decision would come down to how best to use Strider for the first time in a month.
“We’re going to use him,” Snitker said. “That’s probably the biggest discussion, is how we’re going to use this kid for our best advantage, really.”
Strider, who turns 24 this month, signed a $75 million, six-year contract on Monday after just 33 big league appearances. Strider, the first pitcher in baseball history to record at least 200 strikeouts while allowing fewer than 100 hits, opened the season as a reliever but then solidified Atlanta’s rotation and helped the Braves win their fifth consecutive NL East title.
“He wants to pitch. He would pitch today if we let him,” Snitker said. “But he feels good and wants to be a part, which is great. That’s what makes him good. But we’re confident. I think, physically he’s where he needs to be.”
Snitker also said Ronald Acuña Jr. should be fine after he was plunked near the right elbow on a 96 mph fastball from Zack Wheeler that rode up and in. There was a delay of several minutes while Acuña, writhing in pain, was checked out by the training staff.
The punchless Phillies are looking for anything out of their big bats after a 3-0 loss: NL home run champion Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins are 1 for 34 in the playoffs. Phillies manager Rob Thomson said he will not move Schwarber and Hoskins from their 1-2 spots in the lineup.
“I think Hoskins is getting close. He’s starting to loft a lot of balls and square up balls,” Thomson said. “He’s just not squaring them up enough. Schwarb is caught in between a little bit. He’s just maybe trying to do a little too much. Maybe a day off helps those guys a lot.”
Maybe a home game would help, too. The Phillies ended the season on a 10-game road trip and then played their first three playoff games on the road — a span since Sept. 25 that included two rowdy clubhouse champagne celebrations.
“I don’t think I’ve done laundry in a month,” outfielder Brandon Marsh said.
The home game will be worth the wait — since September, since 2011 — if the Phillies can win two games and win the series.
Snitker said the Braves were ready for a “so-called hostile environment.” Phillies fans are ready to show them what a packed house in October is all about.
“They’ve been off for a few years now on playoff baseball and I think they’ll be raring to go,” Thomson said.
Saturdays just got more interesting.