Pa Jake Mintz
Posted by FOX Sports MLB

In the frenzy of the post-game celebration, Aaron Nola and Rhys Hoskins found each other.

After PhyllisWith Houston’s 3-0 win Monday night clinching the franchise’s first postseason berth since 2011, the team’s players, coaches and staff took the field at Minute Maid Park to congratulate each other. Most of them shook hands, hugged briefly, confirmed a few words, and headed to the clubhouse to drink champagne.

But when Nola and Hoskins, the franchise’s longest-tenured pitcher and longest-tenured player, met eyes amid the chaos, they embraced like two long-lost friends reunited.

The hug was eight years in the making.

Nola first debuted with the Phillies in 2015. Hoskins appeared in 2017. Both are strong men along with the 2016 debutant Zach Eflinwho waxed poetic about his first career save to close it out against Houston, has seen so much upheaval and change throughout his time in Philadelphia. Three general managers, four major league captains, more than 150 players in uniform, and no postseason trips until 2022.

As the roster turned over, the drought widened and expectations grew, the three often discussed what it would feel like to finally steer the franchise over the hump. Oh, how sweet that would be. On Monday night, a thousand miles from Philadelphia, it became a reality.

Thanks to Nola’s sensational performance against Juggernaut Astros lineup — he lost a perfect bid for a two-out game in the 7th — the longest playoff drought in the National League is officially dead. Despite the fact that Brewers won, Philly won anyway, earning the third and final Wild Card spot thanks to a season tiebreaker over Milwaukee. The team hasn’t played a postseason game since Ryan Howard tore his Achilles vs Cardinals on the final pitch of Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS. By the way, their first game in October will almost certainly be in St. Louis this Friday night.

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That Nola was the one to get Philly to the promised land was incredibly fitting. The lanky right-hander represents the last link to a bygone era of Phillies baseball. As a rookie in 2015, he shared the clubhouse with Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz, Philly icons of the previous generation. He worked with another franchise legend, Cole Hamels, for about a week that July before the veteran was traded to Texas for a package of five prospects, none of which panned out. Shocking. You can fit Mickey Maniac entire time with the Phillies, from the first pick in 2016 to his MLB debut in 2020 to his trade to Anaheim earlier this year, during the time Nola was on the major league roster.

As the Phillies dealt away the final pieces of their dynasty that summer, it was clear that a long rebuild was underway. Aside from the departure of general manager Ruben Omar in the fall of 2015, little had changed since Hoskins first arrived at Citizens Bank Park in August 2017.

Although the first baseman lit the league on fire that month with 18 homers in his first 34 games, it was immediately apparent to him that something was wrong with the team’s chemistry. The major league club lacked the camaraderie he experienced coming up through the Phillies’ farm system. The club house didn’t go together. They didn’t hang out off the field or outside the stadium. They did not eat or drink together. They were not friends.

Now, the Phillies in 2017 and 2018 had much bigger flaws than a lack of membership — a lack of good players was a much bigger problem — but the uninspiring environment didn’t help empower young players who often struggled to excel. And as the roster began to improve through trades and free agency, adding Bryce Harper, Jean Segura and JT Realmuto in the 19th and Zach Wheeler in the 20th, the Phillies continued to underperform.

Despite the blockbuster addition of Harper, the team went 81-81 in 2019. During the 2020 season shortened due to COVID, they failed to advance to the expanded 16-team playoffs. In 2021, there were moments – they flew by Metz in early August to move into first place in the NL East — but a late-season slump meant they finished the year at 82-80.

After three tough seasons in a row, Hoskins, now a relatively grizzled vet himself, realized that he and the other veteran players needed to be more careful about creating a happy and upbeat environment. It was their duty to see that recruits and young men came willingly to the yard every day.

For inspiration, Hoskins looked outside to the opposite dugout.

“We are playing Brave A LOT,” Hoskins told FOX Sports last week. “And they win a lot. I looked at teams like that Smart people, Cardinals, teams that are always in the mix. And I asked myself, “What are they doing that we’re not doing?”

For Hoskins, the answer, at least off the field, was simple. “We will do more to be together more.” He and other veterans agreed that creating a more supportive and cohesive culture was critical and made it a spring training priority.

But that new mindset has had a hard time taking hold at the start of the 2022 season. Manager Joe Girardi’s intense approach and steady hand didn’t sit well with a Phillies team with high expectations. His hardened demeanor appealed to the team’s younger players. During the first few months, the team played tight, anxious baseball en route to a 22-29 record.

This poor start led to Girardi’s dismissal on June 3. The front office replaced him with coach Rob Thomson, a good friend of Girardi’s who had been a mainstay on Girardi’s staff since 2008.

Where Girardi was solid, Thomson was relaxed, stoic, completely undeterred by bad rebounds and rough patches. Thomson’s expression rarely changes. His postgame speech during the Phillies celebration Monday night was comically flat. A lifelong coach who never expected to be in charge, Thomson moved like he was playing with house money. Hoskins calls it the “f*** it” mentality.

This hands-off style was a breath of fresh air for the players, a complete change of atmosphere from Girardi’s concrete exterior. Under the leadership of the new captain, the team immediately won eight in a row and 14 of 16, getting back into contention. On July 7, they beat Washington to clinch the third Wild Card spot, which they held onto with a tenuous grip all summer. And when the team dropped 10 of 13 in mid-September, fans rolled their eyes and said, “Here we go again.”

But Thomson never hesitated, his expression never changed, he never gave an air of panic. The players followed suit. They held on, did not push, and this time the boat did not sink. And with a little help from the new third Wild Card and the mediocre Brewers, the Phillies got over the hump.

After Monday night’s finale, with the team trickling into the clubhouse, Hoskins remained on the field for a postgame interview on the Phillies’ telecast. When asked what it meant to him to finally get a taste of postseason baseball, the 29-year-old first baseman struggled to contain his emotions. Philly’s sports cult hero, who turned out to be more than just a flashback, held back tears as he announced Thomson, his teammates, front office and support staff.

Half a decade of mediocrity, disunity and frustration is finally in the rearview mirror. A trip to the playoffs is guaranteed. The dam has broken, the drought is over, and now the champagne and tears have finally flowed.

Jake Mintz, Louder Half @CespedesBBQ, is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He’s an Orioles fan who lives in New York, so he’s been single for most of October. When he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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