PHILADELPHIA — It’s the last week in September and, in modern baseball, this is when teams are scraping to survive. Even the best ones don’t have enough pitching, and no team is supposed to summon a pitcher who throws a mind-bending slider with a 100 mph fastball. No team is supposed to have a pitcher who threw a no-hitter six weeks ago close a game because there isn’t room for him in the rotation — thanks to a nondescript lefty who now throws one of the best changeups in the sport.
The Phillies have 87 wins and they will clinch the National League’s fourth seed sometime this week. They are soaring. They are a team no one wants to face in October and nine innings Sunday night against a depleted and downtrodden Mets team demonstrated why. Cristopher Sánchez, Orion Kerkering and Michael Lorenzen might not factor into the Phillies’ postseason plans — at least not in the opening best-of-three series at Citizens Bank Park — but they’re here. It’s the last week in September. The Phillies have pitching.
“Being here in Philly was probably one of the best feelings ever,” Kerkering said. “So, just keep with it.”
About 20 rows behind home plate, Mike Kerkering watched every slider his son threw in his big-league debut and he watched everyone fall in love with the 22-year-old. Tears flowed from his eyes. “Just great for TV,” Orion said afterward. His rise from Low A to the majors in one season is almost unprecedented and many people in the ballpark recognized it when Kerkering glided to the mound. They greeted him with a standing ovation. This doesn’t happen in the last week of September.
J.T. Realmuto called for a first-pitch slider. Strike one.
“You hear so much about it,” Realmuto said. “I wanted to go ahead and see it first pitch. See what I was working with.”
The Mets saw eight sliders. They swung and missed at four of them. Kerkering struck out two of the first three batters of his career.
“It’s one of the more unique sliders that I’ve seen in the game,” Realmuto said.
This whole thing is crazy, but it’s real. It was real to the scouts from other postseason-bound teams seated behind home plate who are advancing the Phillies now. It was real inside the Phillies clubhouse — with raised eyebrows to prove it. It was real with every Twitter video highlighting Kerkering’s stuff.
“I think it played well,” Kerkering said. “Just keep trusting everything. Everyone is saying I got big-league stuff, so just keep trusting it. Know what they say and believe in it yourself.”
Four times in his postgame interview, Kerkering repeated the phrase that has defined his season. This all started with a scoreless inning against the Bradenton Marauders in the Florida State League and it’s probably going to conclude in the MLB postseason.
“Keep with it,” Kerkering said.
Soon after the 5-2 win, Phillies pitching coach Caleb Cotham retweeted two videos from Rob Friedman, better known as Pitching Ninja. One of the videos showed Kerkering’s slider. The other was all 10 of Sánchez’s strikeouts on his changeup.
Sánchez was the first pitcher in the majors with 10 strikeouts on a changeup in a single game since Luis Castillo in 2019.
“I felt like they were sitting on changeups at times, but we could still throw it because he did such a good job of throwing it down in the zone,” Realmuto said. “He was getting swing-and-miss with it even though they were looking for it.”
Cristopher Sanchez’s 10 Strikeouts by Changeups. 😲 pic.twitter.com/j7zz0tPiRW
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 25, 2023
Sánchez is making this interesting. The Phillies will start Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola first in a postseason series. After that, it’s either Ranger Suárez or Taijuan Walker. But Sánchez has a 3.48 ERA in 98 1/3 innings with 95 strikeouts and 16 walks. He is confident. And he has a pitch that hitters cannot hit even if they know it’s coming.
Manager Rob Thomson has avoided discussion of his postseason roster situation until the Phillies have clinched a spot. But team officials are intrigued by everything behind the scenes — Sánchez is asking different questions than before and taking accountability in ways that are next-level for his progression as a pitcher. It’s hard to ignore.
Can Sánchez become someone the Phillies trust in October?
“I wouldn’t be afraid to use him in leverage situations out of the bullpen,” Thomson said. “If we get to October. We’re not there yet. For me, it’s not out of the question about starting a game.”
Maybe the Phillies use Sánchez in a longer series (five or seven games) as a starter who is tasked with going through a lineup once. Maybe he enters a situation in the middle of a game when the Phillies need a strikeout and they think the changeup can play.
Sánchez, before 2023, bounced between the majors and minors, and between the rotation and bullpen. He’s confident he can do whatever the Phillies want him to do in October. He might be better as a reliever.
“I really think so,” Sánchez said through a team interpreter. “Maybe because coming out of the ‘pen, you focus more on a couple of pitches. It’s less work. You have more strength.”
Sánchez has struck out 10 batters in two of his past three starts. One of those was against the mighty Braves. His strong performances have become routine. It, too, is an incredible rise.
“From the first day I saw him four years ago, he was high-velocity and didn’t throw any strikes,” Thomson said. “Now he’s a pitcher with one of the best changeups in the game. Basically. His poise level, how he commands the baseball, and how he commands his demeanor is just unbelievable. It really is. I’m not sure where we’d be without him. I’m really not.”
It’s not as if Thomson isn’t treating these games with importance but, right now, the priority is ensuring every pitcher on the staff is healthy and prepared for October. The Phillies had a short bullpen Sunday because they wanted to rest many of their late-inning relievers. Thomson needed to see Kerkering and Lorenzen, who faceplanted in his bullpen debut last week. The Phillies have to know what they have.
Ideally, Thomson would have found a “softer” spot for both righties. But there are only six more regular-season games after Sunday. So, Kerkering entered in the eighth inning to protect a three-run lead. And Lorenzen had the ninth.
He needed only 13 pitches to retire the side in order.
“He’s obviously got the stuff to do it,” Realmuto said. “To see him gain some confidence today was nice.”
Lorenzen stuck with his starter’s arsenal — he threw six different pitches — and he didn’t see a meaningful uptick in velocity. He’ll probably be on the postseason roster, but it’s hard to see a high-leverage role for him in October. Maybe he changes minds; Lorenzen will probably pitch two more times in the final week.
Kerkering might have three more appearances. He did not pitch on back-to-back days in the minors, although the Phillies said they simulated the stress of those situations. That’s hard to simulate.
But so is going from Low A to the majors in six months. Did Kerkering have any nerves?
“Honestly, no,” Kerkering said. “Once I heard my name and just hearing the crowd, I think they all went away at that point. It’s the same baseball game. Just keep with it.”
“I mean, we knew the stuff was electric,” Thomson said. “It really is. The slider’s his pitch, but you can’t fall asleep on the fastball either because it’s pretty darn good. The only thing with guys coming up here is how they’re going to handle this environment. How they’re going to handle the third deck, 40,000 people in the stands. The passion of this city. And he looked like he wasn’t even sweating out there.”
He’s the new toy, and it’s going to be hard to resist using him. That’s how good it was. And, after one game, Kerkering knows he belongs.
“It’s a lot of confidence,” he said. “Just keep doing me. You never know what’s going to happen. Priorities are priorities. You just need to accept them at that point. Do what you can when your name is called.”
(Top photo of Orion Kerkering: Eric Hartline / USA Today)