PHOENIX — Kyle Schwarber does not look like a prototypical leadoff hitter. He struck out more than any player in Major League Baseball this season. He has not played the field once this postseason. He runs the bases like Barney Rubble. He is bearded and brawny, the sort of compact slugger once destined to spend his career batting in the cleanup spot.
Perhaps the prototype of the leadoff hitter should change.
Because Schwarber, the 30-year-old leadoff hitter and tone setter for the Philadelphia Phillies, has demonstrated this October how a player with his profile can galvanize a team toward a pennant, as he did in a 6-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.
Schwarber’s leadoff single to begin the game opened the door for a two-run rally. What happened in the sixth, when Schwarber faced Arizona ace Zac Gallen for a third time, was more emblematic of his appeal. Schwarber demolished a hanging curveball for a solo home run, his fifth in this series. Bryce Harper followed with a dinger of his own as the Phillies regained control of this tilt in the final game at Chase Field. Zack Wheeler supplied seven innings of one-run baseball.
The combined force of Schwarber and Harper was enough to dent Gallen, who gave up four runs in six innings. J.T. Realmuto iced the game with a two-run blast off reliever Luis Frias in the eighth inning. Philadelphia can clinch a second consecutive National League crown in Game 6 on Monday at Citizens Bank Park. At the very least, these games in Arizona demonstrated the Diamondbacks will not go quietly. The Snakes, as the sign suggested, are still alive.
For two nights in South Philadelphia, the Phillies played like the shaggy Goliath they were last October, smothering the Diamondbacks lineup while sending the fastballs of their best pitchers into orbit. For two days in the desert, the Phillies played like the 90-win team they were during the regular season, giving away at-bats and failing to capitalize on extended looks at the dregs of Arizona’s roster. Craig Kimbrel, Philadelphia’s erstwhile closer, lost contact with the strike zone. In turn, the Phillies lost control of the series.
In Game 3, Diamondbacks second baseman Ketel Marte delivered a game-winning single off Kimbrel for Arizona’s first postseason walk-off victory since Luis Gonzalez’s World Series-winning hit in 2001. A day later, outfielder Alek Thomas deposited a game-tying home run off Kimbrel into the pool maintained beyond the right-field fence. That baseball — and a subsequent group of Diamondbacks fans — would be the only objects to churn those waters this weekend.
Throughout this postseason, Arizona manager Torey Lovullo has discussed his storage of “receipts,” slights of the team that may be marginal or undeniable, genuine or manufactured. He took inspiration from Deion Sanders at the University of Colorado. “We’ve got a long list of receipts right now,” Lovullo said before this series began.
Lovullo added another to the litany when this series shifted to Chase Field. It came from an unlikely source: Phillies backup catcher Garrett Stubbs. The Diamondbacks have cannon-balled into the pool to celebrate advancing through earlier rounds. The frolicking looked like great fun to Stubbs, who forecasting some victorious splashing for his teammates this weekend.
“If we take two here against Arizona, we’ll be bee-lining it for the water,” Stubbs told the Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this week. As far as called shots go, this one will not be remembered alongside the boasts of Joe Namath or Babe Ruth. Stubbs has yet to take an at-bat in this postseason. His main function appears to warm up pitchers in between innings and contribute to the vibes. In this case, his embrace of his gimmick may have irritated his opponents.
“They take things personal,” Lovullo said Arizona tied the series in Game 4. “They have a chip on their shoulder. I know their backup catcher made a statement about sprinting towards the pool or making a beeline to the pool.” Lovullo suggested that after Stubbs’s comment made the rounds, his players were “motivated by that, externally. And they’re motivated to be as good as they possibly can, internally.”
Gallen did not need to look far for motivation. The Phillies ambushed him in Game 1 when Schwarber homered on Gallen’s first pitch and Bryce Harper homered on his fifth. Schwarber did less damage on Saturday but still reached base in the game’s first at-bat. He squibbed a grounder toward the vacated space near third base for an infield single. Harper followed with a single. When second baseman Bryson Stott deposited a single in right field, Schwarber chugged home for the game’s first run.
The Phillies stayed aggressive against Gallen. With two outs and runners at the corners, Stott took off when Gallen threw an 0-1 fastball. Stott hit the brakes as catcher Gabriel Moreno relayed to second baseman Ketel Marte. A double steal was on: Harper broke for the plate. The throw by Marte drew Moreno into Harper’s path. Harper clipped Moreno with his left forearm and elbow. Moreno stayed down for several moments but stayed in the game. Harper touched the plate to give Philadelphia a 2-0 lead.
Inexperience cost Arizona in the bottom of the inning. Rookie outfielder Corbin Carroll led off with a walk and advanced to second on a groundout. When Moreno scalded a single up the middle, Carroll misread the positioning of shortstop Trea Turner. Carroll scooted back toward second, rather than racing toward third. He got up in time to reach third. But he processed no further, stranded as Wheeler struck out first baseman Christian Walker and induced a groundout by outfielder Pavin Smith.
Gallen found a rhythm after the first. Wheeler stayed unsparing. He yielded a one-out single to Carroll in the third and a two-out knock to outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the fourth. Neither man went much further. Gallen required 67 pitches to complete the fifth. Wheeler was less efficient but more effective. His five scoreless frames took 73 pitches, but featured six strikeouts. The Philadelphia defenders aided their starter. Johan Rojas ran down a well-struck ball from Carroll into deep center in the fifth.
When Schwarber stepped to the plate in the sixth, Gallen had not permitted a hit since the first. The streak ended when his 2-0 curveball hovered over the plate. Schwarber did not miss. The ball landed an estimated 461 feet from the plate. Two batters later, Harper hit a ball within shouting distance. In the seventh pitch of his duel with Gallen, Harper turned on an elevated fastball. His homer traveled an estimated 444 feet. That was far enough to give the Phillies a 4-0 advantage.
With his 6-0, 229-pound frame, Schwarber will never look like the sort of lithe speedsters who often bat first. But his value extends beyond the visual. Manager Rob Thomson suggested he can tire out pitchers with his patience. Teammates feel opponents expose their offspeed pitches earlier than usual, fearful of Schwarber clobbering a fastball. And he displays the mentality necessary for a team that occasionally fails to make contact.
“I’ve struck out a lot before,” Schwarber said before Game 5. “I’ll probably strike out a lot more. It is what it is.”
In the seventh inning, with a runner on base and the Phillies in control, Schwarber came up to bat with two outs. Lovullo signaled from the dugout for something no manager desires: He called for an intentional walk, willfully putting the opposing leadoff hitter on base. But Schwarber, as Game 5 demonstrated, is not the prototypical leadoff hitter.
(Photo: Harry How / Getty Images)