Craig Kimbrel is second among active pitchers in career saves. He has been the closer on a World Series winner. But he is not, the Philadelphia Phillies learned when they signed him as a free agent before this year, a quick worker. And he has not adjusted particularly well to the pitch clock, often taking it down to its final few ticks. That, in turn, has made him especially vulnerable to the increasingly robust running game.
That weakness was exposed Thursday in Phoenix when he entered in the ninth inning of a tied Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, facing an Arizona Diamondbacks team that stole more bases this season than all but one team in MLB. And after he walked Lourdes Gurriel to begin the inning, he was in trouble.
It is hard to say how much of the Diamondbacks’ ninth-inning rally, capped by Ketel Marte’s walk-off hit that secured the 2-1 win for Arizona, was because of the pressure Kimbrel felt in that ninth. But had it not been for J.T. Realmuto calling time at one point in Gurriel’s at-bat, Kimbrel would have walked him with a pitch clock violation. An infield hit, another walk and Marte’s single finally allowed the Diamondbacks to vanquish Philadelphia and slow what had seemed like unstoppable Phillies momentum.
“He just couldn’t find the zone consistently,” Phillies Manager Rob Thomson said of Kimbrel. “Sometimes that happens to Kim. But he’ll be available tomorrow, and he’ll be ready to go.”
The Phillies still lead the NLCS, two games to one. And had their usually explosive offense scored more than just one run, they might be a win from the World Series. Plus, Kimbrel has been everything they have needed: Entering Thursday, he had converted all three of his save opportunities and not allowed a run in four appearances.
But the 35-year-old has been the one part of this Phillies team that has felt less-than-certain at times in this postseason. He has allowed at least one base runner in all but one outing. He has struck out just two batters in 4⅓ innings.
So if the Diamondbacks were going to turn this series around, a close game that yielded a late chance at Kimbrel seemed like the best chance. Because while playing in front of a friendlier crowd at Chase Field certainly couldn’t hurt, the Diamondbacks started a rookie right-hander who only recently became old enough to rent a car on his own.
Brandon Pfaadt began the season as the 26th-best prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, the seventh-highest ranked pitcher in the group. He made his major league debut May 3, and he had a 5.72 ERA in 18 starts. Pfaadt, who turned 25 this week, had flashed promise before — but Thursday, he flashed dominance.
For one, he became the first Diamondbacks starter in this series not to allow a first-inning home run. Pfaadt allowed a single to Trea Turner in that first inning but promptly got Bryce Harper to hit into an easy double play. At one point he got six straight outs via strikeout. He became the first pitcher to make it through four scoreless against the Phillies this postseason.
Then Pfaadt did something unthinkable. He didn’t allow a single Phillie to reach base in the fifth inning, either, going so far as to strike out Nick Castellanos — he of the five home runs in three games this month — for the second time in two tries.
To the extent that there was trouble for Pfaadt, it took the form of Phillies starter Ranger Suarez, who was doing the same thing to the Diamondbacks through five innings. But that was the only trouble Pfaadt found. Because after he got two outs in the sixth, Arizona Manager Torey Lovullo headed to the mound and pulled him before he could face Kyle Schwarber a third time.
Thus materialized another poignant example of modern baseball existing at the perceived crossroads of fact and intuition. Lovullo knew the numbers: Major league hitters hit .397 with a 1.139 OPS against Pfaadt in his third time through the order during the regular season. The fans, who booed their manager for removing Pfaadt, sensed the obvious: None of Arizona’s pitchers had been able to hold the Phillies down like this all series.
“I’m sure I was the most unpopular guy in the city of Phoenix, in the downtown area and maybe the entire state of Arizona, right?” Lovullo said. “I want everybody to know that is trying to think along with me that we have a strategy. . . . Everything that’s done has been well talked about. It’s not just analytics.”
Initially, the move looked as if it would serve as evidence for the people because left-hander Aaron Saalfrank walked the first batter he faced — the lefty he was brought in specifically to handle. But then he got Turner to ground out. Judgment was deferred.
Then Saalfrank walked the other lefty set for him, Harper, to start the seventh. Lovullo pulled Saalfrank in favor of revitalized right-hander Ryan Thompson, who nearly pitched out of trouble before yanking a wild pitch that let Harper score.
The Diamondbacks answered in the bottom of the inning, tying the game with their first run in 17 innings with three hits against rookie Orion Kerkering, another of the few Phillies uncertainties this month but only because he has not been in these spots previously.
“He has pitched pretty well for us and the moment is not too big for him,” said Thomson, arguing that some of the Diamondbacks’ hits in that rally were not hit all that hard. All the same, the game went to the eighth tied and stayed that way until Kimbrel arrived in the bottom of the ninth.
Kimbrel, who led all pitchers — even starters with triple the innings — with 13 pitch clock violations, tried to ready himself to work more quickly during his outings late in the season. He shared the same concern some critics of the pitch clock shared: that if the new time limits moved fast in the regular season, they would fly by in the high stakes of the postseason. And the 2023 version of Kimbrel was not missing bats like he once did. So the margin for error would be slimmer.
Perhaps the relative rush had no effect, but Kimbrel did not look comfortable in that ninth inning, making him the rare Phillie to look that way on this October stage. Marte told the broadcast that Kimbrel had been so wild with his curveball earlier in the inning that he was able to focus exclusively on fastballs. He hit one to deliver Arizona’s first walk-off hit in the postseason since Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off winner in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
“Being one of the oldest guys that had been in the team, I want to give everything that I’ve got, and this is the right opportunity to show that,” Marte said through an interpreter.
Marte and his teammates are lucky to have a win. Kimbrel his teammates are not exactly on the brink. The Phillies do not have many soft spots. The Diamondbacks found one when they needed it most.