PHILADELPHIA — When Kyle Schwarber marched to the plate, he was not aware that the first pitch Zac Gallen had thrown in all 36 of his starts this season was a fastball. He was not aware that Gallen had begun 89 of his last 90 starts since 2021 with a first-pitch fastball. “How many times did he do it?” Schwarber asked in a hallway after the Phillies won Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
It was 89 out of 90.
“I didn’t look at it today,” Schwarber said, “but I have asked before: What percent is he on the first pitch? Just because sometimes there are guys who will flip in a breaking ball and things like that.”
Gallen was not that guy. The Phillies knew this. It’s the sort of thing that appears on an advance report dissecting the Diamondbacks before the series starts. Sometimes, the Phillies provide unsolicited information to their hitters. But, often, they’ll defer to that person.
“Yeah, we knew that,” Phillies hitting coach Kevin Long said. “So, I could see him throwing a fastball.”
This is the dilemma Schwarber, as the leadoff hitter, presents. It’s the postseason. Everything is amplified. A pitcher throwing his fastball for the first pitch of the game is a standard tactic. He must establish the fastball. This is the way.
But, with Schwarber standing there, one first-pitch fastball can ignite a delirious atmosphere. If there is a leadoff hitter in baseball who can force a pitcher to rethink his first pitch, it’s Schwarber.
“I kind of had a feeling Schwarber was gonna swing first pitch of the game,” Gallen said. The pitch was not where he wanted it. He pulled it and it was 92 mph — one of the slowest first pitches Gallen had thrown all year — and Schwarber destroyed it.
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“It’s a fun thing when you’re walking up to the plate,” Schwarber said, “and next thing you know 46,000 people are getting on their feet and ready to rock ‘n’ roll.”
The Phillies never trailed in Monday night’s 5-3 win after Schwarber’s first-pitch smash. They are three wins from repeating as National League champions.
“That,” Long said, “is why he’s there.”
As soon as Zack Wheeler recorded the third out in the top of the first, Jeff Hoffman tossed his hat on the bullpen dirt. The Phillies relievers play a game to predict homers and, in the National League Division Series, Hoffman called a first-inning Schwarber shot. It didn’t happen. He went back to it Monday night.
“I’m many things,” Hoffman said, “but I’m not stupid.”
Schwarber swung at the first pitch as the leadoff man in the first inning only 25 times during the season. He put it in play 11 times and eight of those batted balls were hits. Four were homers and two were doubles. But they weren’t all fastballs he saw.
He studied how Gallen had started some other lefties in the first innings of games. The right-hander attacked Freddie Freeman with fastballs away. He came inside with a first-pitch fastball to Christian Yelich in the Diamondbacks-Brewers Wild Card Series.
“When you are formulating an approach and a game plan, overall there’s a team aspect to it,” Schwarber said. “Everyone has their personal game plan as well. When we’re inside and talking about a pitcher, we talk about how we want to set a tone for a game. That’s how it is for us.”
They set a tone, but then the Phillies made Game 1 hard. They squandered opportunities to bury Gallen. They survived tense moments from relievers Seranthony Domínguez, José Alvarado and Craig Kimbrel. The Phillies have won seven straight Game 1s dating back to last postseason. They are now 27-11 all-time in postseason games at Citizens Bank Park.
The party started with Schwarber’s first-pitch swing.
“He can always change the score at any point in time,” Long said. “It’s probably the most likely time for him to get a fastball in a fastball count of any time in the game. So, I mean, it plays right into his favor.”
Against Gallen, the Phillies had a plan. Eleven of the 25 batters who faced Gallen swung at the first pitch. Two home runs — Schwarber’s, followed by Bryce Harper’s solo homer on Gallen’s fifth pitch of the night — were on first-pitch fastballs. The scouting report might have included this: Gallen, this season, threw a fastball on the first pitch to every batter he faced in the first inning 73 percent of the time.
Gallen, a promising 28-year-old pitcher who will finish near the top in NL Cy Young Award voting, lamented his execution afterward. “I don’t know that I would take the selection back,” he said. Maybe if his first fastball wasn’t center-cut, Schwarber would have hit a flyout.
Schwarber had hit .160/.222/.240 in 27 postseason plate appearances before the NLCS. Just like last year, he homered in Game 1 of the NLCS — although this one came five innings sooner.
“We kind of know what we’re going to get out of him,” Harper said. “We know what kind of leader he is. We know what kind of person he is every day. You couldn’t tell if he was 0-for-4 or 4-for-4 at any spot or moment. We know he’s going to break out. We know what type of player he is.”
In the bullpen, they could feel it when Schwarber stepped into the box.
“I think that’s a huge reason why he’s there,” Hoffman said. “Because he can almost win a game with the first swing of the game. You know? It’s a gut punch right away. And then you can’t feel bad for yourself because the next guy’s coming after you.”
“It happened quick,” lefty reliever Matt Strahm said. “I barely got my Red Bull cracked.”
There will be more tense moments in this series. But the Phillies will lean on what carried them here and the feeling that they can rise to any October moment. Manager Rob Thomson has committed to Schwarber as an unusual leadoff hitter. He had his reasons. The most convincing one: It just felt right to him.
It took one swing on a first-pitch fastball that a good pitcher couldn’t help but throw to reaffirm that.
“I never have any doubt with him,” Thomson said. “I have so much trust in him — and all of our guys, really. That’s what he does at the start of the game. He can put the other team on their heels a little bit and get the lead.”
Phillies get to Zac Gallen early, spoiling Diamondbacks’ perfect postseason
(Top photo of Kyle Schwarber’s leadoff home run: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)