Nick Castellanos, Phillies close out the Braves in NLDS

PHILADELPHIA — As the rest of his teammates pumped their fists and yelled at the top of their lungs after the swinging strike that sealed their division series win over the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos stood in place and dropped his head. He remained there in right field for a moment, standing still as one of those raucous Phillies celebrations began.

His teammates hurried toward each other, but Castellanos paused. He isn’t the type to feel hurried by someone else’s schedule. He wanted to turn and wave his cap to the fans and thank them for the cheers, for the curtain call they gave him after he hit two crucial home runs in the Phillies’ 3-1 series-clinching win.

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“Whenever you see that many people giving you an acknowledgment in a positive favor, there’s not really a lot of words that are going to be able to capture that feeling,” Castellanos said. “But it’s special.”

Castellanos is the same, hard to capture in words, but something special. Those two home runs he hit Thursday night followed a two-homer performance in the Phillies’ Game 3 win just a night earlier. No one, not one of those vaunted 1927 Yankees, none of those Hall of Famers on the Big Red Machine, none of those late 1990s Yankees or Braves, had ever hit two home runs in back-to-back postseason games.

“He’s unique, man. He’s one of one. I’ve never met anybody like him, and I mean that in a good way,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “It’s pretty cool watching him be comfortable and be himself.”

Castellanos is, in many ways, emblematic of what has come together in Philadelphia these past two years. He was a good player before he came here, a .276 career hitter good for 20 or so homers a year. He has admitted he didn’t necessarily want to play here, having had interest in playing for the Miami Marlins to be closer to family. But now he is an inseparable part of this franchise’s lore, a staple of a clubhouse that has come to love him, a player who transformed into something more because he was here, on this team, at this moment.

And his Phillies, too, are emerging as a playoff force bigger than the sum of their regular season parts again, just like they did last year. The Game 4 win earned them a berth into their second straight National League Championship Series, this one against the unexpected Arizona Diamondbacks, to begin next week. They knocked off the favorites and now assume that role themselves against Arizona.

“I think it’s just the culture we’ve created,” Castellanos said. “It’s something that’s just kind of happened naturally.”

What came naturally to these Phillies does not come easily to others. The Braves, for example, entered this postseason as heavy favorites after winning 104 regular season games and scoring more runs than anyone in baseball. They entered Game 4 with the stars aligned, too, with ace Spencer Strider on the mound when their season needed saving. He did not pitch poorly, not exactly. But he allowed three runs in 5⅔ innings, which was two more than his teammates could score against Phillies lefty Ranger Suarez and the rest of their bullpen. The third run, on Castellanos’s second homer, drove Strider from the game.

“I gave Castellanos my best fastball there,” Strider said. “And he hit it.”

Strider wasn’t Atlanta’s problem Thursday. The problem was that as the Phillies rose to the playoff moment again, the Braves shrank from it. Because the spreadsheets show that from late March through September, the Braves’ lineup was one of the most potent ever. By measure of OPS+, an adjusted measure of on-base-plus-slugging that incorporates external factors to normalize across eras, the Braves were the second-most prolific offense in history to only those legendary 1927 Yankees. By more familiar measures, such as the MLB-leading 947 runs and 307 home runs they hit, they were dominant; the next closest teams scored 906 runs and hit 249 homers, respectively.

But in practice, Atlanta’s offense scored eight runs in four games. Ronald Acuña Jr. had two hits in four games. Regular season home run king Matt Olson had four, but none for extra bases, the same number as all-star second baseman Ozzie Albies. At times this series, their players seemed more consumed by concerns about the playoff format and the layoff it forced on them, or on the taunting postgame comments of one of their own, than their own struggles. Not all teams find a way to be themselves this time of year, let alone be better. But everyone on the Phillies seems to find a way.

For example, Castellanos was here last year. So was Bryce Harper. So were so many of these Phillies who are staging their second straight magical October run. But Turner wasn’t. Turner signed here as a free agent for the next decade and $300 million, locking himself into a new home city without knowing how it would feel about him — or vice versa.

For much of his first season, he struggled, so much so that one of the more dynamic talents in baseball looked up in early August to see himself hitting below .240. Turner admitted he was struggling in a now-legendary postgame interview, so honest that Philadelphia radio hosts encouraged fans to give him a standing ovation in support. They did. And he came back to life, pulling his average up 30 points over the next two months. He entered Game 4 hitting .478 this postseason. Five innings into the night, he was a triple away from the cycle against one of the more dominant starters in baseball. The homer he added in the fifth gave Philadelphia a lead. Turner has not always been an outstanding postseason performer. He seems to be finding comfort this fall.

“We’ve got a good group, man,” Turner said. “I think that’s the only way to put it. Someone messes up, so what? We can fix it. We can overcome it.”

Thursday, as Wednesday, Castellanos single-handedly responded when Phillies pitchers surrendered a run. They took a lead, he tied the game, something he said later was the result of his team’s commitment to taking back momentum whenever they lost it.

Not all of Castellanos’s explanations explain things. It’s part of why he has gained a cult following here, the label of baseball “himbo,” a big, brawny baseball bro known for his unexpected tendency to offer wisdom in short sentences that always end a little sooner, but provide more insight, than expected.

“You talk to him for an hour, you’ll figure it out.” Turner said. “He sees the world differently.”

Castellanos, like Harper, like Turner lately, like Kyle Schwarber and Brandon Marsh and all the rest, discovered something within himself in Philadelphia he didn’t always showcase. All of them, almost to a man, seem to have found the freedom to play well when it matters. And all of them have helped the Phillies become an October stalwart unlike any we have seen in recent years, less clinical than emotional, freed by the pressure — or something like that. Much like the man who made history for them Thursday night, what works for these Phillies is hard to capture in words.

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