HOUSTON -- For much of Monday night, it appeared the Philadelphia Phillies' ticket back to the postseason would be punched after the final outcome of a game that was played more than 1,100 miles away.
Sorry, but the occasion called for more drama than that.
It took the Phillies nearly 11 years -- 4,010 days to be precise, but hey, who was counting? -- to return to the playoffs. Aaron Nola has been around for most of it, more than any of his teammates. He played with Howard and Utley and Hamels and Ruiz. He pitched for teams that lost 99, 91, and 96 games. He watched the teardown and the rebuild and signed a four-year contract extension just before the rebuild stalled.
And now, with the manual scoreboard in left field showing that the Milwaukee Brewers were close to surrendering in a wild-card race that felt more like a slog, Nola stood on a mound in October for the first time in his career, dogged by a reputation for wilting late in seasons, and didn't allow a baserunner until there were two out in the seventh inning of a one-run game.
Let it be said, then, that the Phillies won their way into the playoffs. They rode Nola, three solo homers -- two by National League home-run king Kyle Schwarber -- and a scoreless ninth inning from starter-turned-reliever Zach Eflin -- acquired back in 2014 for Jimmy Rollins -- to a 3-0 victory over the 104-win Houston Astros before 32,324 paying customers at Minute Maid Park.
The decade-long hunt for a red October is over.
Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series will be Friday night, 11 years to the day after the Phillies' last playoff game ended with Ryan Howard clutching his left Achilles and writhing in agony on the first base line. The Phillies will travel to either St. Louis or New York to face the NL Central-champion Cardinals or the division rival Mets.
Mark your calendar.
It wouldn't be right to rhapsodize this whole thing for its improbability. After all, owner John Middleton authorized a franchise-record payroll that will come in over the luxury tax (raised to $230 million this year) for the first time ever. And the playoffs were expanded to include an extra wild-card team in each league. The 162-game road still isn't easy, but it's slightly less forgiving than it used to be.
Yet there was something so, well, unexpected about the Phillies' wild-card triumph. Four months ago, they were 22-29. That's when they fired manager Joe Girardi and elevated Rob Thomson. Since then, they are 65-44.
For a change, the Phillies got substantive contributions from young players. Rookie shortstop Bryson Stott had three hits, including a homer, in the decisive Game 160. Third baseman Alec Bohm steadied himself after reaching a crossroads in April. There were others.
But the clinching victory called for the stars to step up. On the first pitch of the game, Schwarber nearly punched a hole in a billboard over the Crawford Boxes in left field for his 45th homer. He hit No. 46 in the eighth inning, just after Stott went deep.
And Nola was brilliant.
Before the game, Thomson shrugged off the suggestion that this somehow meant more to Nola just because he's the longest-tenured player on the active roster.
"Aaron Nola, the last five years, has been the same guy every day," Thomson said. "Nothing changes with him. No expression, nothing. He's very consistent."
Clearly, though, Nola was running on a higher octane. Through 31 starts and 198 2/3 innings, his fastball averaged 92.7 mph. With the playoffs in his sights, 18 of his pitches registered at least 94 mph. He scraped 95.4 in the sixth inning and got 15 swings and misses.
Nola retired the first 20 hitters before Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez lined a single to right field. So, Nola wouldn't be perfect. But with the Brewers coming back to win in 10 innings, the Phillies needed Nola to be great. He delivered.
The Phillies drafted Nola three years after they last appeared in the playoffs. They had no idea of the darkness ahead after 2011. The second golden era in franchise history didn't age well. The Phillies slid to 81, 73, and 73 wins in 2012, 2013, and 2014, then bottomed out at 63-99 in 2015.
One front office regime replaced another and undertook a down-to-the-studs rebuild that didn't get off the ground as promisingly as the organization thought.
Four winters ago, the Phillies put a cart filled with money for free agents ahead of the twin horses of drafting and development. They signed Bryce Harper as part of the "Stupid Money" offseason of 2018-19 and figured the rebuild was over. They know now that they were still years away from seriously contending.
There was symbolism in Eflin closing things out. When the Phillies acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers for Rollins, it marked the first substantial move of the rebuilding project.
All these years later, there was Eflin, getting Mauricio Dubon to hit a shallow fly that Marsh tracked down in center field to kick off a celebration 11 years in the making.