By Pedro Moura
FOX Sports MLB Writer

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies each arrived here by surmounting a team from their own division that had bested them all season. They each arrived here, their first National League Championship Series in more than a decade, on the backs of top 2010 draftees who became 2019 free-agent prizes they signed to $300 million contracts.

They even each had their old top draft picks, whom they traded this summer, in attendance to cheer on former teammates at Tuesday’s series opener. Mickey Moniak, once the No. 1 overall pick, sat behind the Phillies’ dugout, and Mackenzie Gore, the No. 3 pick one year later, sat behind the Padres’. Moniak’s real name is McKenzie, if it weren’t odd enough already.

Key members of both teams agree that this NLCS is a matchup of relative equals. Unlike against the Cardinals or Braves or Mets or Dodgers, there is no underdog here.

“A lot of similarities across the board in these teams,” Padres manager Bob Melvin said. “Not only in what rosters look like, rotation looks like, but certainly how we’ve played as well.”

And in how outsiders projected their playoff performance.

“Yeah, I think people kind of counted us both out, right?” said Bryce Harper, one of the $300 million men.

Bryce Harper hits a solo home run to get the Phillies on the board

Bryce Harper hits a solo home run to get the Phillies on the board

Bryce Harper hits a solo home run in the fourth inning to put the Phillies up 1-0 against the Padres.

Harper hit the decisive home run in Game 1, a fourth-inning blast off San Diego starter Yu Darvish. The Phillies added one more run, a Kyle Schwarber shot two innings later, but Harper’s effort was enough because of Zack Wheeler’s spotless seven innings. Philadelphia won 2-0 at Petco Park.

Until its final moments, this was a remarkably well-played contest: errorless and efficient and brisk, very brisk. Then, with one out in the ninth, Alec Bohm fielded a Juan Soto grounder that could’ve become a game-ending double-play and instead threw it away. But even that mistake could not extend a 2-hour, 43-minute game much longer. After some shouted encouragement from manager Rob Thomson, Philadelphia’s Jose Alvarado quickly retired Manny Machado and Josh Bell to end it.

Darvish began the game by issuing a walk to Schwarber. After he coaxed soft contact from Rhys Hoskins and J.T. Realmuto, he left a two-strike fastball over the plate against Harper, who ripped it toward right field. Fortunately for Darvish, second baseman Jake Cronenworth was perfectly positioned within an arm’s reach, and he made that reach in a millisecond.

Cronenworth could not field Harper’s next hard-hit ball, a solo shot to left in the fourth inning. In the sixth, Schwarber sent a mammoth home run into the second deck at Petco Park.

Kyle Schwarber cranks a solo home run to make it 2-0

Kyle Schwarber cranks a solo home run to make it 2-0

Kyle Schwarber hits a solo home run off Yu Darvish to make it 2-0 in San Diego.

Wheeler himself struggled to traverse the first frame. He walked Soto on four pitches, then battled Machado to nine pitches. Realmuto, his catcher, thought then that it would be a “dogfight” to navigate through six innings.

Yet Wheeler finished seven without pushing his pitch count past 83 pitches. First, he primarily wielded his fastball. Then he started relying on his slider and later his curveball. He didn’t surrender a hit until the fifth, when Wil Myers redirected a one-out fastball up the middle. Myers made it no farther than first, for Wheeler responded by inducing a popup and securing a strikeout. That was the Padres’ only hit. The game featured only four.

“That’s probably as good a pitching performance [as] we’ve seen all year,” Melvin said of Wheeler.

Across the board, the Phillies’ and Padres’ similarities are striking. Even the word Hoskins chose to describe Wheeler’s dominance was related to a state of equilibrium.

“It seemed like the curveball was the equalizer for those guys tonight,” he said.

The Padres and Phillies each employ one of the two sons of A.J. and Stacie Nola, and those sons will match up in Wednesday’s Game 2. The two teams’ veteran aces, Wheeler and Darvish, even emerged within seconds of each other to warm up at 4:27 p.m. Tuesday.

Neither of these teams completed what could be described as a great regular season. Neither of them registered what could be described as a great September. But they each played great in the Wild-Card Series, and they each played even better in the Division Series.

On Saturday, several Padres watched the Phillies advance on a clubhouse television as they awaited their own opportunity to clinch.

‘Seeing this right here is unbelievable’ — Wil Myers before NLCS Game 1

'Seeing this right here is unbelievable' — Wil Myers before NLCS Game 1

In a pregame interview with Tom Verducci, Wil Myers explains why he is excited to go head-to-head with the Phillies in this NLCS.

“They’re another dangerous team, another wild-card team that’s really caught fire late in the year,” said San Diego’s Joe Musgrove. “They’re very similar to us in that they’re riding on energy, feeding off that high and each other and the city. So it’s a good thing that we start at home. Try to take at least one at home, and then go to Philly and handle business.”

Musgrove’s hope, uttered before this series began, is still possible. Nothing Tuesday hints that this series is likely to end early.

With two swings, the Phillies merely landed the first blow and the first documented dissonance with their opponents.

Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and L.A. Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Beat a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter @pedromoura.

Get more from Major League Baseball Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more

Source link