“Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me. I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength.” – Ichiro Suzuki
PHOENIX — Baseball people like to say that little things win ballgames, when usually it’s the big stuff. The Phillies have twice as many extra-base hits as the Diamondbacks in this National League Championship Series. That’s the biggest reason they can win the pennant with one more victory back home in Philadelphia.
And yet, Saturday night felt different. Before the Phillies rained 1,287 feet of home runs on Chase Field, they used their wits and their legs to take back control of this series. After two late losses here, they needed the little things to work for them. Who knew that a steal of home by their centerpiece slugger would propel them to a 6-1 victory in Game 5?
“That was awesome,” said the Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto, who was batting in the first inning when Bryce Harper rumbled home on a double steal, plowing into the Diamondbacks’ catcher, Gabriel Moreno.
Collision at the plate as Bryce Harper scores to make it 2-0 pic.twitter.com/epTHbpc7tD
— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) October 22, 2023
“After what they did to us the last two games, they had all the momentum in the world. So we had to try to do something early in the game to get it back. That was a great call by Rob putting that on.”
Rob Thomson, the Phillies’ manager, sent the signal to his base coaches, Paco Figueroa and Dusty Wathan, with two outs, runners at the corners and a 1-0 lead in the first. Figueroa, the first base coach, wanted Bryson Stott to take off, draw a throw from the catcher — and then stop on his way to second. Wathan, the third base coach, told Harper to be aggressive.
Torey Lovullo, the Arizona manager, said his team saw this coming. But surprise was not the point. The Phillies wanted to force a perfect play from the Diamondbacks, and the worst-case scenario wasn’t that bad: Even if Harper were thrown out at home, they would still have a lead and a jolt.
“It’s not a bad risk because they’re going to have to execute two good throws,” Figueroa said. “The catcher has to throw the ball in the chest to the middle infielder, and (the middle infielder has) to make a good throw. The biggest thing is you’re looking where the third baseman is. If the third baseman’s playing close, it’s tough to run because then the guy at third base can’t get a big lead.”
The Diamondbacks’ third baseman, Evan Longoria, was not close to the bag. The Phillies also considered Arizona’s battery: Zac Gallen is quick to the plate and Moreno is a Gold Glove finalist with a strong arm. He was unlikely to concede a stolen base.
Moreno’s throw short-hopped the second baseman, Ketel Marte, who broke from the bag as Stott pulled up. Marte’s return throw bounced in the dirt and kicked off Moreno’s glove. Moreno had flung off his mask and was drawn into the path of a charging Harper, whose forearm crashed into the catcher’s face.
Harper immediately sprang to Moreno’s side — “The way he went down, I was making sure he was good and stable,” he said — and reached over him to tap the plate.
“That sounded like a football collision,” Realmuto said. “He smoked him. I was happy to see he was OK though.”
Moreno got up and remained in the game, but his team was down for the count. The Phillies had their swagger back and a two-run lead for their top starter, Zack Wheeler. Having beaten Arizona at its own game, the Phillies then played theirs: Kyle Schwarber and Harper went deep — very deep — in the sixth, Realmuto pulled a two-run blast in the eighth, and the bullpen — this time — closed it out.
“It just shows you how being aggressive and putting pressure on those guys — not just them but everybody in general, to put pressure on the other side is good and it makes things happen,” Phillies shortstop Trea Turner said. “And I think that second run in that first inning was really big.”
From his view in the dugout, Turner said, he actually thought Harper would be out; indeed, Lovullo said, a good throw by Marte would have nailed him. But accurate throws are never a given in that setting; remember the Mets’ Lucas Duda trying to catch the Royals’ Eric Hosmer at home in the pivotal play of the 2015 World Series? It’s hard to do everything right.
“It’s the same thing with outfielders throwing home,” Turner said. “It’s like, a lot of people blame the third base coach (if a runner is thrown out), but it’s hard to go get the ball, transfer it, throw it all the way home and put it on target. Playing defense sometimes isn’t easy when the pressure’s on — big moments and speed and all these things.”
It’s not an easy play for the lead runner, either — “Last year I ran the same play and I was out by 10 feet,” Stott said — but it was fitting that Harper was the one to take the risk. He made a similar calculation in Atlanta in Game 2 of the Division Series, running on Nick Castellanos’ deep one-out drive in the ninth, betting that the Braves’ defense would not be able to execute the spectacular double play it would take to end the game.
Harper lost that gamble — atta boy! — but said a week later that he still did not regret it. Boldness and brains can pair well with brawn, especially in October.
“It’s being very smart and aggressive at the same time,” Figueroa said. “In this game of baseball, I’m telling you, we love the home run ball, but little things win games.”
(Top photo of Bryce Harper running toward home on a double steal before colliding with Gabriel Moreno in the first inning, as J.T. Realmuto looks on: Norm Hall / Getty Images)