NLCS: How the Phillies decided to head home early

PHILADELPHIA – Less Science, More Schwarber.

That’s not a guaranteed recipe for success, but it appears to be one route Philadelphia can take to earn its eighth National League pennant.

When manager Rob Thomson said last week before the team left San Diego that “the science tells you you should stay the night,” the road-weary Phillies players decided to fly home after Wednesday afternoon’s second game rather than to spend another night in southern California, it was no accidental reference.

The Phillies are one of five major league clubs to break away from Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep expert who has worked with Major League Baseball since 2006. The San Francisco Giants used his advice to streamline their October journey while also winning three World Series rings during a five-year span of 2010-2014.

Current clubs utilizing Winter’s expertise include both teams in this National League Championship Series, the Phillies and the Padres. The others are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cleveland Guardians and the Boston Red Sox.

The “sleep science” that Thomson was referring to advised the Phillies that, based on direction of travel and game timing, it would be wisest to stay put after Wednesday’s game.

But with the team away 22 days out of 24, the veterans spoke up when players learned they were playing Wednesday afternoons instead of that night, and Bryce Harper reached out to Dave Dombrowski, the club’s president of baseball operations, and lobbied earlier come home

“That’s what studies tell you, and I get it,” Dombrowski said of the science of sleep. “But I think sometimes you just have to go with what you think is best with your ball club in that regard.”

He noted the Padres were also out after Wednesday’s game so there would be no advantage either way.

“Our boys have been away for so long that I think the urge to come home and be there is understandable,” said Dombrowski, who noted he also spoke to player representative Rhys Hoskins.

Kyle Schwarber punctuated Friday night’s homecoming by smashing a leadoff home run at the bottom of the first inning. His second homer in three games boosted both his team and the 45,279 sell-out crowd at Citizens Bank Park.

It came after the team landed in Philadelphia around 4 a.m. Thursday and Schwarber got some sleep, went to the park for treatment, and then enjoyed a nice, relaxing dinner.

“We’ve been on the road for a while,” Schwarber said. “But I think if you told us that we would be in that position, we’d be happy to be out for this long.”

Itinerary planning, especially in October, is about much more than convenient charter flights and great food. Especially when so many things remain unknown until the last minute and players and coaches have to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Phillies this fall have had their share of fluidity. They had planned to fly home after an afternoon Division Series game in Atlanta on Oct. 12. But during a three-hour rain delay, Dombrowski met with the players and they decided to reverse course, staying in Atlanta that night and flying the next day instead.

The difference between that night and last week’s in San Diego, outfielder Nick Castellanos said, was the geography and length of the flight.

“The positions that we find ourselves in during those six hours from San Diego are a lot more constrained and restricted,” Castellanos said. “Normally, after six hours at altitude, the body needs an adjustment period to relax again. I feel like from a performance standpoint I’d be happy to jump in and have a day to at least stretch and acclimatize and basically wash off that cross-country flight on a regular charter plane.”

In a phone interview during Game 3, Winter said that regardless of his expert advice, he certainly understands that one team has been away as frequently as the Phillies going home in recent weeks. And despite the science, he said, that can also be beneficial.

“Here, over the years, players have taught me not to sleep in their own beds,” said Winter, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia and hosts a podcast called Sleep Unplugged. “Any 5-foot-8 sleep doctor can tell you one thing, but a player’s belief plays a big part. To me, science is one of the metrics that an organization can use, such as:

“It’s information that smart managers and GMs can manage with lots of data, and then they make the call.”

A complicating – but welcome – factor in October is that the tour group includes players’ families. The Phillies use two charter planes, one for the team and one for front office staff and families.

When asked what the hardest part of packing was, pitcher Kyle Gibson said, “That’s probably a better question for the wives and mothers with kids. We were on an 18 day trip and I had little more than one suitcase with me. But for the mothers they have to pack air mattresses, warm clothes, cold clothes. I would say the weather change is probably the biggest thing. For me I’m pretty simple. Give me some jeans and some shirts to wear on the field and I’m good.’

Gibson said Friday in Philadelphia it felt like the team hadn’t seen home in ages.

“Shoot, the house smelled a bit like it’s been closed for three weeks,” he said. “It’s definitely a welcoming sight to be there. We know the fans are going to love it, we know we played really good baseball and they appreciate that. And we know it’s going to be an exciting atmosphere.”

Of course, spending time together while traveling can act as a bonding agent.

“On the road twenty days in a row and just home for a moment and right back on the road,” Hoskins said. “Yes, we’re together 14 hours a day – 12, 14 hours a day, seven months straight. And then you connect that and take a lot of families with you when we travel, we have to spend time together.

“But it’s fine anyway. This is where the chemistry that was talked about is created. That’s how you build trust. If you can trust the guy next to you on the field or behind you in a lineup, it keeps the lows a little shorter and the highs a little longer. But there is nothing better than playing at home.”

Planes, buses, and hotels clearly haven’t slowed the Phillies down. And who knows, the extra round of wildcard playoffs could make extended travel a thing. When Tampa Bay opened in Cleveland two weeks ago, the Rays had ended their season with a nine-game trip before visiting the Guardians.

When someone asked Terry Francona if he thought it would give his team an advantage, he didn’t hesitate.

“If they’re out of underwear, yes,” Francona said. “Nobody wants to be without underwear.”

The Phillies understand.

“That and socks,” Schwarber said.