PHOENIX — Craig Kimbrel was an All-Star this season and will likely be in Cooperstown someday, but he’s made it difficult for the Phillies to count on him at the most important time of the year.
Kimbrel suffered his second straight loss on Friday night. In Game 3, he was wild and pitched in the ninth. In Game 4, he blew the first save of his playoff career, allowing three runs in the bottom of the eighth as Arizona turned a two-run deficit into a 6-5 victory that shocked the Phillies and evened the NLCS at two games a piece.
Pinch hitter Alec Thomas, a lefty with a modest .230/.274/.359 slash line over two seasons, hit the game-tying two-run shot to right-center. Phillies manager Rob Thomson left Kimbrel because he wanted to avoid using Jose Alvarado at all costs, who went two innings in Game 3. Alvarado didn’t come on until Kimbrel put two more hitters — Ketel Marte and Corbin Carroll — on base. Gabriel Moreno homered on Alvarado’s game-winning hit.
“The last two games have been bad,” Kimbrel said. “I came in here and it cost us two games. The bright side is we’re still tied at 2-2 and we’ve got a game here tomorrow and then we get to Philly.”
The Phillies would have been in great shape if they had won the last five outs of Game 4 Friday night. They would take a 3-1 series lead into Game 5 with their ace, Zach Wheeler, on the mound, and at worst, three chances to close out the NLCS.
The series now comes down to who wins two out of three, and the Phillies won’t have a full bullpen for Saturday’s Game 5. Kimbrel, Alvarado, Jeff Hoffman and Orion Kerkering have been used on back-to-back days. Kimbrel has thrown 45 pitches, all under high stress. Kerkering had never appeared on back-to-back days before the last two. At the very least, it looks like these two will go down on Saturday night.
“We’ll contact them tomorrow and see how many guys we have available,” Thomson said. “We’re certainly not going to put people in danger, but it’s a tough group and they want to play.”
The Phillies are 7-3 this postseason and all three of their losses have been crushing. There were the two in that round and the blown lead in the eighth inning in Game 2 of the NLDS in Atlanta. For so much of the season, their key contributors have come through. Kimbrel had a 3.26 ERA and took over the closer’s job when Alvarado injured his elbow in early May. Alvarado was lights out for most of the season. Hoffman had a career year. Matt Strahm helped the Phillies in multiple roles. Kerkering earned four promotions because of his dynamite slider, bat-disappearing abilities and control.
It’s a bad time for Kimbrel and Kerkering to go south and a lot of it comes down to throwing strikes.
“That’s the key,” catcher JT Realmuto said. “That’s the difference in the last two games compared to the first two games, we turn our 0-2, 1-2 results into 2-1, 3-0 and that’s how you turn good strikers into great strikers.”
The Phillies knew they would need most of their bullpen in Game 4 when Christopher Sanchez made his first start in 26 days. Sanchez went 2⅓ innings and allowed two runs, one earned. He didn’t have the feel for the change that led to his breakout season. Thomson didn’t want to extend it beyond 60 or 70 pitches but pulled it to 38.
Hoffman, Strahm and Cerantoni Dominguez did their jobs to get 12 strikeouts to take the game to the seventh inning. It could have turned out differently if Gregory Soto, the most disappointing of the Phillies’ high-octane bullpen offseason acquisitions over the past year, had kept the D-backs at bay, but he put the first two hitters he faced on base with one and a walk. Kerkering relieved him and walked two straight to force in a run.
“A lot of our pitchers looked sped up to me,” Realmuto said. “But here’s what happens, you get behind in the count and the baserunners come up. The place gets noisy, they start to feel the crowd, the atmosphere. It’s the same thing our crowd does to opposing pitchers when they’re in our house. The best way to not rush is to not let guys get on base.”
The big question now is who closes games for the Phillies the rest of the season? Alvarado has been so important as a fireman in a high-leverage situation that he can’t always be saved for the ninth inning. Dominguez had fits of savagery. Same with Soto. And now Kerkering.
Thomson kept his faith in Kimbrel after the game, but admitted he may have to put him in a lower-leverage spot next time out to put him under less pressure … if it even exists at this time of the year.
“I’ve been in the big leagues for a long time,” Kimbrel said. “I lost a lot of ball games and I won a lot of ball games. The only way to come back and succeed is to believe you can. And I believe that the next time I touch the ball, it will be a great one.”
It will take more than faith for Kimbrel and Kerkering, the Phillies’ most and least experienced pitchers, to rebound. Kerkering had a 1.51 ERA with 79 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 49 minor league appearances this season, then started his major league career with seven straight without allowing any earned runs.
The past two nights, he hasn’t been able to manage the slider that got him into the Show. He said it came down to overthinking. Realmuto believes it was down to overcorrection.
“I think yesterday he sagged his slider a little bit. Today I think he just readjusted a little bit and was pulling it more, he was kind of uncompetitive,” the catcher said. “I think maybe he just tried to make too many adjustments and couldn’t get it going. It’s kind of like the rest of our pen, when he gets behind, it’s harder to get out.”
The Phillies will need significant length in Game 5 from Wheeler, who is as capable as anyone on the staff. He has a 2.63 ERA and 0.70 WHIP in nine playoff starts. Only one was under para. He struck out 26 and walked one in 19 innings this postseason.
The Phils need him to be Superman again on Saturday night.
“For me, every game in the postseason is a must-win,” Realmuto said. “We wouldn’t want anybody else on the mound tomorrow. Wheels is our man.”