PHILADELPHIA — Tommy Pham knew that he hadn’t been hitting. He’d posted just one extra-base hit and struck out 11 times in 36 playoff plate appearances. For Saturday’s Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, that futility led to him getting pulled from the lineup.
The 35-year-old didn’t deny that his performance required an honest self-evaluation. But for the veteran outfielder, getting benched was hard to reconcile.
“I’ve had a really bad postseason offensively,” Pham said on Monday, after Arizona’s 5-1 win in Game 6. “But when you look around, there aren’t too many guys that are out-performing me, either. I kind felt like I was getting singled out.”
Pham said he channeled that feeling into preparing himself for his next opportunity. It didn’t take long. He got a text of the lineup before Monday’s matchup informing him that his name was penciled in the lineup card. And in his first at-bat, Pham turned on a knuckle-curve from Phillies righty Aaron Nola and launched it halfway up the seats in left-center. It was a homer that proved something to himself and his coaches.
And more importantly, it gave Arizona its first lead of the series in this raucous ballpark. In a do-or-die game, it set an unmistakable tone. The Phillies never truly threatened afterward. Merrill Kelly shoved over five innings. The bullpen was lights out. And the Diamondbacks are now one win away from its first World Series appearance in 22 years.
Before the game, D-Backs manager Torey Lovullo said that he had “a lot information” that Pham would have a good day. It was a vague comment, and the basis for saying it was unclear. After all, Pham was 0-for-4 in his start against Nola just six days prior. Still, Lovullo’s pregame prediction proved prescient. His renewed faith was rewarded. Pham’s blast was as clutch a hit as any in an October full of them for the D-Backs.
“I know that he feels like he got benched, but I just was giving him a little bit of a blow,” Lovullo said. “He gets a really good swing off on a breaking ball and gives us a 1-0 lead. It was a great moment for him and a great moment for this team.”
Pham was pinch-run for in Game 3. Then pinch-hit for in Game 4. There were some signs that his Game 5 start could be in jeopardy, especially as Pavin Smith provided some timely offense in his limited opportunities. But when Pham actually got word of the switch, he wasn’t too happy.
“As a veteran player, you can only imagine. It’s not too friendly,” Pham said of his talk with Lovullo. “I’ll leave it right there. I guess it was productive.”
In series like this, every decision can be monumental. Every batter in the lineup, and the spot they’re slotted into must have its purpose. The Diamondbacks traded for Pham at the very last minute before the Aug. 1 deadline to be around for these moments. His homer could be remembered forever if Arizona is able to take care of business in Game 7 on Tuesday night. Such is the nature with productive moments this late in the season. They define legacies.
“Tommy’s a great hitter,” said Diamondbacks second baseman Ketel Marte. “And he thankfully executes in clutch situations. We’re going to continue to need him.”
Pham was certainly not the only offensive threat on Monday night. The Diamondbacks have been starved for big hits in Philadelphia. And immediately after Pham’s blast, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. hit one out. Two batters later, Evan Longoria drove in a run with a double. Marte drove in two runs, including one on a triple. It’s just that Pham’s shot opened the floodgates. And perhaps revived a hitter that this team will need if they’re going to pull off the upset and win the World Series.
To get here, from where Pham was just days ago, required perspective. Even if the Diamondbacks manager Lovullo didn’t view Pham sitting on Saturday as a benching, that’s how it was perceived. And Pham needed to work through that before getting back in the lineup.
“One thing I can tell you, man, life ain’t fair,” he said. “I’ve learned that all across my life, from my upbringing. I’ve always got things told to me — the cold, hard, honest truth. I don’t take exception to the truth. I embrace it. I use it to make me better.”
Pham can be a bit of a firebrand. He’ll say what’s on his mind, and be critical of whomever when he feels it’s warranted. That doesn’t matter if it’s after a loss, or arguably his team’s biggest of the season. But that does not mean he wasn’t focused on what this meant for the team, and handling the situation selfishly. He complimented Kelly, the starting pitcher. He said the opportunity for this team to have a Game 7 is “beautiful.”
“I’m pumped, I’ve got a little chill,” Pham said. “This is what it’s about.”
Pham finished Monday night just 1-for-4, though his final out was a rope to center field. After Game 6 ended, the D-Backs sent out their Game 7 lineup to players. Pham said his name was on it. He’d earned his role back, though whether or not he’d ever lost it is probably in the eye of the beholder.
“Everybody was happy, pulling for me,” Pham said. “And that’s what it’s all about. These guys support me, they’ve got my back. I guess the baseball Gods are on my side.”
(Top photo of Tommy Pham rounding the bases after homering: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)