HOUSTON — An hour before Game 6, John Middleton stood in the tunnel that led to the field at Minute Maid Park. He was told to enjoy the evening.
His Phillies faced elimination in the World Series, the title Middleton has coveted since 2009.
“It’s hard to enjoy it,” he replied.
“John,” he was told, “this is all bonus.”
“You know what?” he replied. “You’re right.”
Four hours later, the Phillies were done, 4-1 losers in Game 6. Their season was finished. The irascible 2022 ballclub, filled with the most charismatic characters since the upstart 1993 team, had spent themselves. The bats went quiet, the bullpen exploded, and the Houston Astros, the better team, had won.
As Middleton was preparing to witness the end, half a continent away, the end had come for the Union. After ending regulation tied at 2 and extra time tied at 3, they lost to the Los Angeles Football Club on penalty kicks. Philly-area natives helped cost both Philly teams their title hopes, one of many similarities to the simultaneous demises.
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The biggest thing the disappointing endings shared, however, was that neither team was supposed to have this wonderful chance to lose.
And wonderful, it was.
Never before has a city lost titles on the same day.
Never did anyone believe that Philadelphia, with minimal titles in its tormented history, would be the team to do so. Because you have to get near the summit to reach the peak, and Philly doesn’t do that much.
Before the season the Union were projected to finish second in their conference. They finished first, tied with Western Conference leader LAFC for the league lead, with 67 total points.
The Phillies were projected by fangraphs.com to have an 8.4% chance to win the pennant, sixth best in the National League.
They each earned their shot by dethroning a king and bullyboy. The Union reached the final by beating New York City FC, the reigning MLS champions, in the semis. The Phillies beat defending World Series champion Atlanta in the Division Series.
The Union had never made the MLS Cup final. Now they’ll be losing players, and maybe manager Jim Curtin, to more big-time clubs.
The Phillies hadn’t made the playoffs in 11 years and hadn’t won the pennant in 13 years. They finished third in the NL East ... but came within 27 outs of winning it all.
They did it after firing their big-name manager, Joe Girardi, on June 3, then promoting career coach Rob Thomson. They did it with leadoff hitter Kyle Schwarber hitting .218 in the regular season, plus a ton of home runs, including another in Game 6. They did it with reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper hobbled by a torn ligament in his right arm. They did it after losing closer Corey Knebel to ineptness, then injury, and then losing emerged closer Seranthony Domínguez to injury, though he returned. They did it by restoring 100-mph reliever Jose Alvarado with a demotion, plus some mental rehab. The World Series proved too much for Alvarado, who delivered classic meltdowns in Games 4 and 6.
It’s astonishing we’re even having this conversation.
Incredibly, the Phillies and Union failed thanks to excellence from a pair of their own, sort of.
Last week, most Philadelphians didn’t know who Chas McCormick and John McCarthy were, even though they competed at the highest levels of their sports.
Suddenly, they are the men who denied two Philly teams and their titles.
McCormick is a West Chester Henderson High grad who had to play at a Division II college before the Astros drafted him in the 21st round. Yes, he hit two homers in the ALCS, but most of Philly was watching the Phillies beat the Padres and couldn’t have cared less.
McCormick’s biggest postseason moment came at the place he worshipped, Citizens Bank Park, when he robbed J.T. Realmuto of an extra-base hit in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Astros’ 3-2 Game 5 win. Call it the Bank Robbery.
McCarthy, a North Catholic and La Salle college and a former Union goalie himself, entered in the 117th minute to replace LAFC’s injured starter. McCarthy then saved two Union penalty kicks for LAFC after extra time after the MLS Cup final ended tied, and those saves are what beat the Union.
The Union were excellent all season. They were complete, and elegant, and consistent.
The Phillies? Not so much.
In fact, it’s hard to get too upset at the Phillies for losing the way they lost. It was the same way that they’d won, and lost, all year.
They depended on home runs. They struck out a ton all year, and they struck out a ton the last three games, check-swinging and looking at middle-in meatballs. They fanned 49 times in their four losses to the Astros, 12 times Saturday night. It is who they are.
At times, they got hotter than Texas, and then they got colder than tundra. They are what they are.
They scored 27 runs in their last four postseason wins, but managed just three in their last three losses.
They ran into a team that was second in home runs surrendered, second in team ERA, second in on-base percentage against, and, my personal favorite, second in walks-plus-hits per innings pitched (WHIP). The Astros also were, by some metrics, the second-best defensive team in baseball. The Phillies were, generally, one of the worst.
All of those numbers played out against the Phillies. The Astros were, in a word, better.
Not by much. Not overwhelmingly.
But they were better by just enough, and that’s why they won, and the Phillies did not. Some 1,500 miles west, LAFC also was better by just enough, and that’s why they won, and the Union did not.