Upon rejoining the Phillies after a three-day paternity leave for the birth of his first child in Las Vegas, Bryce Harper noted the unseasonable chill in the air at Citizens Bank Park.
“The weather out there feels like October," he said before Monday night’s game.
From here on out, it might as well be October for the Phillies. The season has come down to a five-week sprint to the finish, the last National League wild-card berth hanging in the balance.
Gabe Kapler senses the urgency enough that, according to multiple sources, he called a brief pregame team meeting to restate the importance of doing little things correctly in the wake of Cesar Hernandez’s failure to run hard out of the box Sunday in Miami. Hernandez also wasn’t in the lineup for the series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Maybe the Phillies are finally sensing it, too. They rallied from a two-run deficit in the eighth inning to take a lead, then won the game, 6-5, on struggling utilityman Sean Rodriguez’s walk-off home run in the 11th inning against reliever Michael Feliz.
“It does feel good, regardless of if you’re 1-for-20, 0-for-20, 15-for-20,” said Rodriguez, who was in a 1-for-21, 12-strikeout tailspin since July 27 before the homer, prompting questions about why the Phillies kept him on the roster and optioned Maikel Franco to triple-A on Monday. “A ‘W’ is good no matter how it comes. Being the individual that gets to contribute, it makes you feel like you’re contributing to a ‘W.’ That’s always good.”
After dropping two of three games to the lowly Marlins over the weekend, the Phillies got back on track against the Pirates, the only NL team that has a worse record (11-31) than Miami since the All-Star break, and inched within one game of the idle Chicago Cubs for the final wild-card berth.
“I think every game is critically important right now,” Kapler said. “Tonight felt like a playoff game, and I think our players treated it like a playoff game. I think that’s going to be the case every night going forward.”
The Phillies even got good news after the game on Scott Kingery, who left the game in the sixth inning with what the team labeled as “abdominal soreness.” Tests showed the issue was gastrointestinal, not muscular, according to Kapler, and Kingery isn’t expected to miss any time.
Trailing 4-2 in the eighth inning -- and with the prospect of facing lights-out Pirates closer Felipe Vazquez in the ninth -- the Phillies' here-today, gone-the-next offense rallied for a 5-4 lead on Harper’s solo homer and a two-run shot by Corey Dickerson, who has four homers in 73 at-bats with the Phillies after hitting four in 127 at-bats for the Pirates earlier this season.
But it was J.T. Realmuto who extended the inning for Dickerson’s big swing by reaching on a hustle single to third base, precisely the sort of effort that Kapler wants to see.
“We’ve talked a lot about hustle and how important it is to fight for every inch on the bases,” Kapler said. “J.T. got down the line for us in a huge way.”
Realmuto also snuffed out three more stolen-base attempts, improving his majors-leading success rate to 44 percent. At this point, it’s unclear why any team even tries to run on him.
“I have no idea,” Harper said. “You know how I feel about J.T. If he doesn’t win the Gold Glove this year, then it’s an absolute joke. Hopefully guys keep going and he keeps throwing them out.”
The Pirates evened the score at 5-5 in the top of the ninth when Josh Bell jumped on a Hector Neris splitter and crushed it for his 33rd homer of the season.
The Phillies loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but Pirates reliever Chris Stratton got Rhys Hoskins to foul out before striking out Harper on a 95-mph heater. Hoskins, stuck in a miserable 9-for-78 malaise, was booed loudly on his way back to the dugout.
“I could care less about that,” Hoskins said. “We won the game.”
Indeed, winning is all that matters now for the Phillies, which is essentially how Kapler explained keeping Rodriguez over Franco.
Kapler reasoned that Franco is less suited for a bench role because of the third baseman’s limited versatility and his ineffectiveness at coming off the bench and hitting left-handed pitching. Rodriguez hasn’t been particularly effective against any pitchers lately. But he came off the bench and played four innings in center field, a position that Franco is unable to play.
“He put a pretty good swing at that ball,” Kapler said after Rodriguez’s fourth career walk-off homer. “He had a nice at-bat earlier in the game, a big walk for us as well. He played some good center field for us. I understand some of the criticism, and I was really happy for Sean. When he came off the field, it was a pretty happy moment for him.”
And a timely victory for the Phillies on a night that felt like October.