If, indeed, this is a contract drive for J.T. Realmuto, he has revved it from zero to 100 in four days.
Maybe you heard that the Phillies didn’t play last week because of the Miami Marlins’ coronavirus outbreak in Philadelphia, a seven-day layoff that messed with pitchers’ arm strength and hitters’ timing. You wouldn’t know it by watching Realmuto, who emerged from the downtime in the same place that he was before it.
As the Phillies’ best player.
Realmuto drilled a three-run home run in the first inning Thursday night to create a lead over the New York Yankees that not even the Phillies’ maligned bullpen could give away. But that wasn’t even the free-agent-to-be catcher’s biggest contribution to a 5-4 victory at Citizens Bank Park that salvaged a split of the four-game series against the hottest team in the American League.
More on that in a minute.
The game’s climactic moment occurred in the eighth inning. With the Phillies clinging to a one-run lead, the tying run on third base, and two out, Yankees manager Aaron Boone sent Aaron Judge to the plate; Joe Girardi countered by summoning closer Hector Neris and advising him, “Don’t give in. Aaron Judge, as great a hitter as he is, if you make your pitches, you have a chance.”
Neris set up Judge with two fastballs, got him to foul off a splitter, then wasted a splitter in the dirt. On the next pitch, Neris got Judge to swing through another splitter.
“Attack him,” Neris said of his strategy. “Attack him like the most I can, then follow my secondary pitch, my split.”
Said Girardi: “That’s a dangerous at-bat for any pitcher, because if you make a mistake he can hit it out of the ballpark anywhere. And Hector was fantastic.”
It was the biggest moment this season for a Phillies reliever, and it held up when Luke Voit’s long two-out drive against Neris in the ninth settled in center fielder Roman Quinn’s glove.
That brings us back to Realmuto. With nobody out in the fourth inning and the Phillies leading 5-2, with starter Zach Eflin’s pitch count climbing to a territory he hadn’t reached in 2020, Realmuto nailed Brett Gardner trying to steal second base to complete a double play after Gio Urshela struck out.
Go ahead and note the foolishness of attempting to steal on Realmuto, a lesson learned by most National League teams by now. Of greater import to this game was that Realmuto’s quick release and accurate throw likely enabled Eflin to complete the inning and forestall a busy night for the Phillies’ relievers from getting even longer.
“J.T. does so many things for us — defensively, offensively, running the bases,” Girardi said. “He had another great night. I’m not sure which is bigger [the home run or the caught stealing]. But I’m really happy he’s on our side.”
Indeed, when Realmuto crossed home plate after his first-inning homer against Yankees starter Jordan Montgomery, Bryce Harper greeted him with his now-familiar check-scribbling motion.
Had fans been allowed entry, they likely would have done the same.
Add it to Realmuto’s weeklong highlight reel. He notched two hits in the Phillies’ return to action Monday night at Yankee Stadium, then slugged a two-run homer in the seven-inning opener of Wednesday night’s doubleheader.
So much for being rusty.
“Joe Dillon, our hitting coach, he’s got a pretty good little curveball, so he’ll throw us live batting practice and actually mix pitches and throw fastballs,” Realmuto said. “He’s throwing from only 30 feet, but he’s throwing it in there, and it looks like 100. Having that long layover, we were still able for a couple days to see some type of pitching, which I think helped.”
Eflin didn’t throw more than 60 pitches in training camp — in a simulated game, no less — because of back spasms. Before the game, Girardi conceded that he was “not too sure what to expect.”
Eflin gave up two unearned runs and threw 31 pitches in the second inning, 23 of which came after Scott Kingery was unable to corral the pitcher’s high throw on a potential force play at second base with one out.
But Eflin pushed it to 77 pitches to get through four innings.
“I can’t tell you the last time I faced an opponent with a different-colored jersey,” Eflin said, adding that it was sometime in March.
Eflin’s pitch mix was notable, too. He threw 49 sinking two-seam fastballs, compared to three four-seamers, according to Statcast. Last year, the Phillies tried to get him to elevate his four-seamer, an approach that seemed to tire him out by the All-Star break.
“I’m a sinkerballer pitcher,” Eflin said. “I’m at my best at the bottom of the zone. It’s refreshing to go back to square one and see how good square one can be.”