Astros shut down Phillies’ bats again, head back to Houston one win from a World Series title

J.T. Realmuto stood halfway between first and second base in the ninth inning Thursday night and stared out at center field, his mouth agape, hands pressed to the back of his helmet, alone with his thoughts.

There was so much to absorb. His one-out drive that was run down and hauled in against the scoreboard by leaping Houston Astros center fielder Chas McCormick. Another game without much thunder from the Phillies’ power-packed offense. A World Series that feels as if it is slipping away.

And now, after a cuticle-chomping 3-2 loss in Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies must chew on this: Unless they win back-to-back games in Houston this weekend, their magic-carpet ride of a postseason will end with a National League pennant but also the emptiness of not being able to etch their names alongside the World Series victors of 1980 and 2008.

» READ MORE: Close doesn’t count: Phillies’ bats are too quiet for too long in their Game 5 loss

“Obviously it’s a tall task,” Realmuto said from a quiet clubhouse. “But we’ve won two games in a row a lot of times this season.”

True, though the odds aren’t great. In 47 previous World Series that were tied at two games apiece, the team that won Game 5 wound up being crowned as the champion 31 times. Factor in that the Phillies on Saturday night will face Astros lefty Framber Valdez, who shut them down in Game 2, and, well, good luck.

The Phillies need not search far for inspiration. In 2019, the Washington Nationals trailed 3-2 in a World Series that headed back to Houston and won two games to take the title.

And then there’s the experience of the Phillies’ very own leadoff hitter. Kyle Schwarber played for the hex-breaking 2016 Chicago Cubs when they won a Game 6 and 7 on the road in Cleveland to author a World Series comeback.

So, yes, it can be done.

”It’s going to take everything. It’s going to take everyone,” Schwarber said. “We’re excited about this task ahead. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The Phillies’ best hope to vanquish the 106-win Astros was always to outslug them. And after tying a World Series record with five homers in Game 3, it seemed like things might actually go according to plan.

But the bats have been silent ever since. In Game 4, the Phillies became the second team in 118 World Series to get no-hit. In Game 5, they picked up six hits, but only two for extra bases and one with a runner in scoring position. Jean Segura’s RBI single in the eighth inning snapped a team-wide 0-for-20 drought with runners on second or third base.

Over the last two games, the first five hitters in the batting order — Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, Realmuto, Bryce Harper, and Nick Castellanos — are 2-for-36 with one homer (Schwarber’s Game 5 leadoff shot), six walks, and 17 strikeouts.

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Is it a function of the Astros’ world-class pitching or the Phillies’ approach at the plate?

“I’d say it’s a little bit of both,” said Realmuto, 1-for-18 with 11 strikeouts since his 10th-inning homer in Game 1. “We’re striking out more than we normally would in these situations, and that’s a testament to how good these pitchers are. If we’re going to be successful over the next two games, we’re just going to have to be able to put the ball in play when guys are [on base]”

A little luck would help, too.

With two out and the tying run on third base in the eighth inning, Schwarber hit a scorcher down the first-base line. But Trey Mancini, a defensive replacement who hadn’t played first base since Oct. 5, was hugging the line in the shift. He snagged the ball and stepped on first.

In the ninth, Realmuto crushed a ball to right-center. He thought it was at least a double. Castellanos had visions of Realmuto circling the bases for another inside-the-park homer. But McCormick, a West Chester native, made a leaping catch as he crashed into the scoreboard.

“If he doesn’t make that play and it bounces off, we know how those balls can play,” Castellanos said. “But he made a hell of a play. It was an incredible catch.”

Castellanos had two big opportunities, too. With a runner on second and two out in the fifth inning, he waged a 10-pitch duel with Astros starter Justin Verlander. Castellanos fouled off four consecutive pitches — slider, fastball, slider, changeup — took a curveball to work the count full and fouled off another curveball before flying out to left field on a slider.

Then, in the ninth, after Harper got hit by a pitch, Castellanos worked the count full again before rolling an inning-ending groundout to Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, who had an RBI single, a solo homer, and took a hit from Castellanos in the third inning with a leaping catch.

“[Shoot], man, I felt like I had great at-bats, but that’s the game of baseball,” Castellanos said. “I’m going home empty-handed.”

» READ MORE: Phillies and their home crowd gave everything they had in Game 5 — it just wasn’t enough

The Phillies’ hopes now rest with fatigued ace Zack Wheeler, who will take the mound one week after getting knocked around for five runs (four earned) in five innings of Game 2 and exhibiting a drop in his peak fastball velocity.

“He’s got the stuff to get the job done,” Realmuto said. “Whether his velo is at 98 or not, as long as he’s got his command and then he’s able to attack the strike zone and work ahead of hitters, I’m not too worried about the velo.”

When the Phillies left town on the night of Sept. 25 for a season-ending 10-game road trip, they didn’t know if they would make it back. Not only did they return, they hosted eight postseason games over three rounds, turning Citizens Bank Park back into South Philly’s biggest party, and restoking a city’s long-held flame for baseball after a decade in the darkness.

Not that there was a need to hype up the crowd for the last home game until next April, but Brad Lidge spiked a slider to Carlos Ruiz in a ceremonial first pitch replay of the final World Series pitch 14 years ago. Meek Mill rapped in right field, then got a ride on the hood of the Phanatic’s scooter. The Phillies took the field in powder-blue throwbacks.

And then the Astros grabbed a 1-0 lead after four pitches from starter Noah Syndergaard.

» READ MORE: J.T. Realmuto confident that Zack Wheeler is ready to shine in Game 6 start in Houston

Jose Altuve lined a leadoff double and took third base when Brandon Marsh bobbled the ball in center field. Manager Rob Thomson brought the infield in, and Peña stroked an RBI single up the middle.

The crowd roared again when Schwarber tied the game with the 26th leadoff homer in World Series history. But Peña homered off Syndergaard to open the fourth inning, and the Astros held on.

If the Phillies come home now, it‘ll be for a World Series victory parade next week. And it will be because their bats awoke deep in the heart of Texas.

“We’ve got to be able to bounce back offensively,” Schwarber said. “I don’t think anyone believes more in this group than we do. That’s going to be a big thing for us.”

Count them out at your peril. But this would qualify as their biggest comeback of all.

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