Phils return to ‘Red October’ on Rojas’ walk-off hit


PHILADELPHIA — Bryce Harper extended his arms as wide as they could stretch and waited for his jubilant Philadelphia Phillies teammates to sock him in the midsection with bottles of bubbly that had been turned into super soakers.

J.T. Realmuto used his teeth to gnaw off the plastic that enveloped a box of cigars, ready to light the official accessory of any good clubhouse bash. Garrett Stubbs stripped one strap down on his Phillies overalls and danced a few songs away with Brandon Marsh and Nick Castellanos.

There is no wrong way to celebrate a clinch, of course, and the Phillies had plenty of practice with postseason parties after enjoying three of them last year on the way to the World Series.

But perhaps the most delightful look belonged to 68-year-old team owner John Middleton. He stood on the soggy carpet in a drenched Phillies hat, T-shirt and shorts. And in his bare feet, the owner who once vowed he would spend “stupid money” to make the Phillies winners again had something else he wanted to say:

“I think we’re a better team this year than we were last year,” he said.

The Phillies put the National League on notice they are ready for another run at the World Series after a 10-inning, 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night.

They also clinched the top wild-card seed and will host all games in the second year of the NL wild-card series. Game 1 is Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park.

“We have such a great team and a great group,” Harper said. “We couldn’t do this without every single guy in this clubhouse.”

That includes outfielder Johan Rojas and reliever Jeff Hoffman, two players who weren’t even on the opening day roster. Rojas won the center-field job and won the game with an RBI single that scored pinch-runner Cristian Pache. Hoffman has turned himself into a trusted late-inning reliever and earned the win with a scoreless 10th.

Rojas’ single off reliever David Bednar (3-3) set off a wild celebration that quickly carried into the clubhouse. “Phillies CLINCHED Wild Card” flashed on the scoreboard and the team’s official postseason song, “Dancing On My Own,” was cranked to full volume.

“I think the memories created with the song on the run we had was real,” Castellanos said. “I also think the city being able to be in on the song was also real. To be able to clinch and put it back on and have the city get just as excited as us means it’s real. And real is beautiful.”

The Phillies were poised for another wild clubhouse bash after clinching series victories in the National League Division Series and NL Championship Series at home last season. They lost the World Series to Houston in six games last year and carried the weight of unfinished business into this year.

They just had to wait.

Marsh homered for the Phillies and Harper added a sacrifice fly for a 2-0 lead in the sixth.

Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds hit a solo shot in the seventh off Phillies starter Aaron Nola, and Henry Davis hit one off All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel that tied the game at 2 in the eighth.

Rojas bailed them out for the Phillies’ first clinching win on a walk-off since 1920.

The Phillies celebrated their first clinch of a postseason spot at Citizens Bank Park since Sept. 18, 2011, when they won their fifth straight NL East title.

A decade of lean years followed, but Harper’s celebrated arrival in 2019 helped usher in excitement, enthusiasm for the future and eventually the postseason. The Phillies added free agent shortstop Trea Turner this season, and his second-half surge propelled the Phillies to the wild card.

No doubt, the ballpark will again rock as it did last October. Phillies manager Rob Thomson said a rival coach told him during the playoffs that a game in Philly was “four hours of hell.” The Phillies won their first six home playoff games last season, setting the tone for what they called Red October.

Thomson earned laughs in the aftermath of last season’s wild-card clinch. Thomson went to take a swig out of his bottle of bubbly and — doink! Much to the delight of fans who saw the video on social media, the cork was still inside.

“I didn’t know that anybody knew until I got back in my office and my daughter texted me,” he said ahead of Tuesday’s game.

Thomson joked he learned his lesson and was ready to uncork before he took a swig.

His bottle was open Tuesday when he addressed the team in the clubhouse before the real celebration began.

“This is just the start,” Thomson said. “This team is built for where we’re going. Getting there is the tough part. Now we’ve got to finish this thing off.”

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