MLB playoffs 2023: Opportunity calls in NLCS Game 3, and the Diamondbacks’ Ketel Marte answers

“We never give up,” Marte said after the Diamondbacks finally drove home the run that notched their first victory of the series

PHOENIX — Third base is almost home. It’s the doorstep to achieving the goal. It is the land of opportunity.

The 84-win Arizona Diamondbacks know all about seizing opportunity — they dispatched the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers to get here, after all — but their openings in the NLCS were few and far between as they fell into a 2-0 hole in Philadelphia. Against Phillies co-aces Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, they had only one man stand on third base (and two pass it on a home run).

Back at home for Thursday’s NLCS Game 3, the opportunities were hard-won, tense and elusive. But they were there, and with Ketel Marte’s walk-off single, the plucky Diamondbacks finally found a thread of hope in this series. The story of a 2-1 game that stalled the Phillies’ charge toward the World Series was really the story of the five runners who occupied third base, who stood in the land of opportunity — and what happened in that heightened world of baseball limbo.

1. Ketel Marte, bottom of the sixth

In the early stages of Game 3, the most significant development for the Diamondbacks was rookie starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt pulling off a trick that Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly could not: quieting the Phillies’ bats. Going precisely twice through the order, the rookie was brilliant, allowing only two hits and striking out nine in 5 2/3 scoreless innings. Manager Torey Lovullo pulled him before Kyle Schwarber’s third at-bat, drawing the ire of the crowd but following the overwhelming body of evidence about the alternative, and even greener rookie reliever Andrew Saalfrank escaped the frame despite a walk.

That brings us to Arizona’s first threat. Marte, in inaugurating the third time through the order against Phillies starter Ranger Suarez, stroked a 104 mph double to left-center that briefly looked (even to Marte) like it was going to leave the park. After a Corbin Carroll groundout moved Marte to third, Phillies manager Rob Thomson reached the same conclusion Lovullo had: Even though his starter had all zeros on the board, it was time for the bullpen.

Reliever Jeff Hoffman then demonstrated the thrust of the logic to which so many managers now adhere — and to which so many fans and observers object. He whiffed Gabriel Moreno on three sliders and a 98 mph fastball, then got Christian Walker to ground out on a slider. Marte was stranded. That opportunity was for naught. The larger one made available because of Pfaadt’s excellence was, at the very least, endangered.

2. Bryce Harper, top of the seventh

Amid the nonstop noise of Citizens Bank Park, it felt like nothing could go wrong for the Phillies in this series. Even transported to Arizona, this game began to feel familiar. In the seventh, Harper scored a leadoff walk on six very cautious, low pitches from Saalfrank and reached third after a single and a double play.

Ryan Thompson, one of the D-backs’ most trusted relievers at the moment, just had to get J.T. Realmuto. With two outs, any method would do. The right-hander with a funky side-arm delivery got ahead 0-1 but then uncorked a wild slider that went to the backstop and allowed Harper to race home for the game’s first run.

Even though Thompson eventually struck Realmuto out, the Phillies were ahead, and the Diamondbacks were being backed toward a cliff. Of the 40 MLB teams to go up 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series, 39 have won the series and, strikingly, 31 of them have finished off the sweep.

3. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., bottom of the seventh

Veteran Arizona outfielders Tommy Pham and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. responded quickly in the bottom of the inning. Pham singled, then Gurriel tied the game by doubling in Alek Thomas, who had pinch-run for Pham. After a Pavin Smith single, Gurriel reached third with no one out.

A-ha. Yep. The D-backs really had the Phillies in a pinch there. This situation, runners on the corners and no outs, carries a run expectancy close to two runs. Not scoring the go-ahead run would count as a major disappointment. Yet the D-backs did not score. Gurriel froze as Phillies shortstop Trea Turner fielded a grounder, took a couple steps toward third, then turned and fired to start a double-play.

Lovullo called Turner’s multiple-front victory “a very capable play” postgame but also noted that it was a mistake on the D-backs’ part.

“I watched an extremely experienced shortstop make a great play, and they turned a double-play on a situation where that should not have happened,” Lovullo said, “so those are some things we have to tighten up.”

Two outs, man on third? Well, that’s less promising. Believe it or not, that scenario carries fewer expected runs (in a vacuum) than every team has at the beginning of every inning, with the bases empty and no one out. The same attention to leverage and pitching decisions that has moved managers to pull their starters has helped them put their best arms forward in key situations.

In the regular season, the league’s hitters had a .734 OPS with two out and third base occupied — identical to the overall MLB OPS. In the postseason thus far — when every such situation is a four-alarm fire that calls for, say, dominant left-hander Jose Alvarado — the overmatched hitters have managed just a .167 average and .624 OPS. They have struck out 28.6% of the time.

In this case, shortstop Geraldo Perdomo grounded out, and the Diamondbacks were stuck on a tie game.

4. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., bottom of the ninth

Some portion of the battle — maybe half, maybe more — is just creating opportunities. Baseball scores, stats and fun facts lie all the time, and the 2-1 finish in Game 3 has the effect of distorting just how many more times the Diamondbacks put themselves in position to score. Gurriel was one of four Arizona hitters to reach base multiple times, while the Phillies had only Harper.

But the reason playoff baseball raises the blood pressure of an entire ballpark resides right in that chasm between run expectancy and plain, old runs. There’s no carveout for woulda, shoulda or coulda, for demonstrated ability or winning track record. There’s only the binary result once the dust settles.

Leading off against Phillies closer Craig Kimbrel, Gurriel created a new opportunity. He walked, and soon enough, he was back on third base. Soon after that, he was watching another grounder bound toward Turner at shortstop. This time, Gurriel didn’t freeze. He sprinted home, but the throw beat him, and despite some flailing attempts to avoid the tag, he was out at the plate.

Another zero for his troubles. It was the type of repeated blow that could take the knees out from under a team, could put them on the path to becoming the next team to go down 3-0, the next team to get swept.

In this case, though, it didn’t.

“I think there were maybe some missed opportunities in that game that we could have let affect us,” star rookie Corbin Carroll said after the game, “but we stayed in it — focused on the next pitch, focused on doing our jobs.”

On the next pitch, Perdomo calmly took ball one. Then he took three more balls from Kimbrel, whose control wavered mightily. He took first base and pushed one more runner to third.

5. Pavin Smith, bottom of the ninth

Marte, who entered the game with a stellar .362 average this postseason and had already ripped two more hits Thursday, was exactly the hitter Lovullo wanted to see at the plate in this moment. At 30 years old, he is a franchise staple — the prize of GM Mike Hazen’s first big trade, a two-time extension signee. He had waited for this sort of opportunity.

“He has an unbelievable heartbeat. He loves to be in that moment. He is one of our best players for a reason,” Lovullo said. “I thought the key to that inning was Perdomo walking and handing it off to Ketel.

"But Ketel thrives in that situation. He just has the heart of a lion.”

Marte’s roar came in the form of a simple line drive to right-center. Those last 90 feet, so impossible to traverse for the previous few innings, became a waltz for Pavin Smith, a simple prelude to the celebration in the outfield.

“I did check back for a half a second,” Smith said. “You don't want to be the guy that doesn't tag when the center fielder catches it, but I was pretty sure it was down. As I was running home, I put my hands up in the air and knew we won.”

Heading into Friday’s Game 4, the Diamondbacks no longer have their backs against the wall. They now reside among the MLB playoff teams that started down 2-0 in best-of-seven series. Those teams have come back 14 times in 89 tries, a rate only a hair worse than that of 2023 hitters driving in that man on third with two outs.

The Diamondbacks have given themselves an opportunity. Now they just have to work on seizing it.

“We never give up,” Marte said. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this club. We’ve got a really good team. We’ve just got to believe in it.”

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