PITTSBURGH — Gabe Kapler will seek out one of his players, relay a message he wants the entire team to hear, and then watch it spread through the clubhouse.
Before Friday's 17-5 romp over the Pirates, the Phillies manager, who doubles as a communication savant, described how he has been recently using what he called a "neighborhood-village approach" to reach his team. Kapler tells a player, who then tells another, who then tells one more and so on.
The manager's messages — or themes, as he calls them — are small reminders. He told the youngest team in baseball this week that a division title is within reach. Stay the course, the manager said. Kapler has trumpeted that message since spring training and repeated it during the season's most trying times.
But it was not until recently — when the Phillies began to play their best baseball of the season — that the manager's theme felt like anything more than a pipedream. But Friday night, as the Phillies moved into first place in the NL East by percentage points over Atlanta after finishing off the longest game in franchise history at 4 hours, 30 minutes, the manager's brass ring felt within reach. The marathon game was also tied for the longest nine-inning game in National League history.
"I think we're pretty comfortable with where we're at," said Andrew Knapp, who had two of the team's seven extra-base hits. "I don't think that anyone in this clubhouse doesn't really expect us to be there. It didn't really seem like today was going to go the way we wanted to early and for the game to finish the way it did I think proves a lot about this team staying in it and just continuing to battle for nine innings."
Odubel Herrera smashed a three-run homer, Maikel Franco hit a two-run double, and Scott Kingery had a season-high four hits, including an RBI infield single in the sixth after he sprinted to beat the throw at first. Nick Williams and Jesmuel Valentin made key throws to record outs at home when the game was still close. Carlos Santana drove in three runs and Cesar Hernandez and Rhys Hoskins both scored three times.
The Phillies received hits from all eight starting position players. They walked 10 times and forced the Pirates to use six pitchers. This was "Phillie-style" offense, Kapler said. Starting pitcher Nick Pivetta left in the third inning, but the bullpen kept the game close before the Phillies blew it open by scoring seven runs in the seventh, a rally that was capped by Knapp's three-run home run. The game ended with catcher base Jorge Alfaro playing third base. It was a rout. And it took a while to record all 27 outs.
"I set the tone pretty well tonight," Pivetta cracked. "That's always fun. But these guys didn't give up and that's fun to watch."
The Phillies have won five straight games and seven of their last eight. They are in first place for the first time since May 26. Kapler said he was unaware the team had moved into first place. "That's cool," he said. The Phils stood their ground last month against some of baseball's best teams and now they are positioning themselves to take care of a favorable schedule before the all-star break.
"Every step we get closer to the finish line, it becomes more and more tangible. It becomes more and more real," Kapler said. "But that doesn't mean we believe it anymore now than we did then. The idea was these young players who were in their developmental phase, if they do take that step forward and get much better or they get a little better, then we would be in the position that we're in. Now we take it a step further, they continue that development, they take one more step forward, we are a playoff team."
Kapler's theme is being spread and he has already started to inject a new one. July will bring plenty of trade rumors as the Phillies prove to be contenders for a playoff spot. So Kapler has a message for his team to rally around.
"We have everything we need right now to compete right here," Kapler said.