PHOENIX — Soon after the Phillies selected Orion Kerkering 16 months ago, the righty reliever decided he needed a new look. He went online in search of a headband to wear under his hat when he pitched. He scrolled through some options and stopped at one. It was a silhouette of the Joker smiling. This was it.
Why so serious?
“Pretty much,” Kerkering said.
The 22-year-old was here, in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the National League Championship, because he is serious about his work and not much else. He soared to the majors from Low A because he did not ride the highs or wallow in the lows. He had pitched in 56 games this season before Thursday and not once had he allowed more than two hits in an outing.
He threw eight pitches in a 2-1 Phillies loss and the Diamondbacks turned three of his seventh-inning sliders into hits. A one-run lead evaporated and, in the ninth, Craig Kimbrel could not hold Arizona down. The team’s youngest pitcher and oldest pitcher failed in the game’s biggest moments and it prevented the Phillies from snatching a commanding series lead. But the Phillies have existed for 141 seasons and they have never jumped to a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series. Maybe this is how it is.
“Everything was there,” Kerkering said. “It was just over the plate. That was it. Nothing too crazy. That was it.”
“I got ahead,” said Kimbrel, 35. “I felt like I made some pitches to try to get us out of it, and some days you get ’em, some days you don’t. And today just wasn’t my day.”
So, it’s a series. The Phillies will start Cristopher Sánchez, who has thrown nine pitches in the past 25 days, in Game 4. The Diamondbacks will open with Joe Mantiply, a 32-year-old lefty reliever who will last three or four batters. Both teams will dip deep into their bullpens.
The Phillies will have to make more contact; they struck out 13 times, the franchise’s third-highest total in a postseason game. Their only run scored on a wild pitch. Arizona squandered chance after chance to take a lead, but once again, the Phillies never played from behind until the final pitch Kimbrel threw.
Maybe the Phillies did not deserve to win. Did it feel like a game they could have — or should have — won? “Both,” Kimbrel said. The Phillies chose not to view it as a missed opportunity. That is how teams cope in October.
“It was a great ball game,” manager Rob Thomson said. “It could have gone either way, you know. What are you going to do? I’m not going to think about it that way.”
Kerkering threw three of the worst sliders he’s thrown all season and it was poor timing. No one saw it as more than that. “He has pitched pretty well for us,” Thomson said, “and the moment is not too big for him.” Afterward, the rookie answered a few questions, grabbed a plate of food, and sat at a table in the middle of the clubhouse to watch a show on his phone.
“I liked from the second he stepped on the mound in his debut he looked as confident as anybody we have,” Trea Turner said. “When he’s doing it, it gives me confidence. I’ve seen him do it so I have no doubt he’ll throw another big inning for us.”
Kimbrel has been here — many times — and the stress level has not eased. He had not permitted a run in this postseason until Thursday’s ninth inning. He walked the leadoff batter. His shortstop made a fine play to cut down the potential winning run at home. But Kimbrel then walked Arizona’s No. 9 hitter to load the bases. He threw strike one to Ketel Marte, but Marte timed an elevated fastball for a game-ending single.
“He just couldn’t find the zone consistently, and sometimes that happens to ‘Kim,’” Thomson said. “But he’ll be available tomorrow, and he’ll be ready to go.”
It was the ninth walk-off loss in Phillies postseason history. They had won 11 straight postseason games in which they allowed two runs or fewer. The last loss: Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series, a night that will forever haunt the Phillies.
This one felt much less climatic. The Phillies remain in control of the series.
But they will need Kimbrel and Kerkering in Game 5 because Sánchez might not face more than 11 batters or so. Kerkering is unproven and Kimbrel has walked a tightrope. Why is there confidence in a rebound?
“Just the people they are,” Brandon Marsh said. “You know? We’ve already talked with Orion. The dude’s nasty. We want him in every situation, just like all the other guys. We have all the faith in the world in him. Can’t wait to go see him get back out there. Both of them.”
There is an unusual amount of confidence in Sánchez, who is something of a surprise to start Game 4. Taijuan Walker signed a $72 million deal last offseason and the Phillies were 21-10 when he started. He has remained in the dugout for every postseason game because the Phillies have not viewed him as a viable bullpen option since he’s never pitched as a reliever. And, now, he was passed over for a pivotal start.
The Phillies chose Sánchez because they believe his changeup is that good. It’s a weapon against both righties and lefties.
“He has been throwing the ball very well, and I know there’s a lot of right-handers in that lineup,” Thomson said. “I don’t know how far we’re going to be able to go with him, but he’s been pitching very well and throwing strikes, and I have a lot of confidence in him.”
“This is what you work for,” Sánchez said through a team interpreter. “Tomorrow I have to show what I am capable of.”
He repeated that over and over. “I’ll be ready tomorrow,” he said. Then, he winked.
“He’s a competitor,” Aaron Nola said. “You can see it in his face when he’s out there. He’s got good stuff. Sinker’s still nasty. Changeup’s nastier. He pounds the zone. He doesn’t walk guys, really, which is big against (Arizona). Obviously, we all know they’re fast.”
The Diamondbacks did not see Sánchez during the season. They ranked 14th in both batting average and slugging percentage against changeups. The Phillies could have Sánchez face Arizona’s lineup once, then push him to see Corbin Carroll a second time, before opening the bullpen. That might be the ideal scenario.
“This will be his first start in a minute, but we’re confident,” Bryce Harper said. “We feel like he can go out there, throw strikes and keep us in it and let our bullpen take care of it.”
Kerkering and Kimbrel will be a part of the plan. The Phillies trusted Kerkering with a huge spot in Game 1 of the Braves series. He had pitched in lesser spots since, then stumbled Thursday in Game 3.
“No,” he said. “Same thing. Just be ready for the next day. Whenever your name gets called.”
(Top photo of Orion Kerkering exiting in the seventh inning: Harry How / Getty Images)