Phillies get their swagger back, punching Diamondbacks in mouth with early sneak attack

PHOENIX — It was like a professional sumo wrestler strolling into an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steak house and ordering a salad.

It was like seeing a Ferrari going 50 mph on the Autobahn.

It was spending the evening with Kevin Hart without cracking a smile.

It was the powerful Philadelphia Phillies stunning everyone in the house Saturday night at Chase Field with a sneak attack that even had their own players scratching their head.

“I couldn’t believe it,’’ Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “I was shocked.’’

The Phillies dismantled the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-1, taking a 3-2 lead in the National League Championship Series. The D-backs are still trying to figure out what hit them.

Sure, the Phillies still showed off their muscle, hitting three home runs.

Zack Wheeler again showed why he was one of the best free-agent signings in all of baseball, impersonating Roy Halladay in a dominant performance when the Phillies bullpen was in shambles.

Still, the play that left everyone gasping for air occurred right out of the gate in the first inning, completely changing the complexion of the NLCS.

It began with Kyle Schwarber, who led off the game with a 45-foot dribbler for a base hit. He couldn’t stop laughing as he ran to first. Bryce Harper followed with a single one batter later, and with two outs, Schwarber scored on Bryson Stott’s two-out single. Schwarber, who hit a 461-foot homer in the sixth inning, had barely even touched third base when right fielder Corbin Carroll fielded the ball, but he gambled by running home, and scored easily.

It set up the play of the night, if not the series.

Realmuto, at the plate, watched Stott take off from first base trying to steal second, quickly turned to his left, and saw Harper charging towards the plate.

They were attempting a rare double steal.

“From the start of the playoffs, sort of the message to everybody was, 'Let's put pressure on people,'" Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “That doesn't mean the double steals. It also means getting down the line, putting pressure on people with ground balls, putting pressure on the outfield … forcing them to maybe make some mistakes.’’

The execution was perfect. Diamondbacks catcher Gabriel Moreno got the pitch from Zac Gallen, stood up and fired to second base, but Stott stopped. D-backs second baseman Ketel Marte grabbed the ball and fired home, but it bounced in front of Moreno. Harper crashed into Moreno's left shoulder, and scored.

And just like that, the Phillies had their first steal of home in a postseason game in franchise history.

The Phillies, without hitting a home run or even producing an extra-base hit, had a 2-0 lead, and Harper became the oldest player to steal home in a postseason game since the great Jackie Robinson. Sure, it wasn’t a straight steal of home like Robinson’s in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series, but it counted just the same.

“We're going to be aggressive right here,’’ said Harper, who would later hit a 441-foot homer in the sixth inning. “Bryson had the green light. He went, and i just tried to make the best decision to get there and make it happen to score that run...

“You know, baseball play. Big collision at the plate. But just a good position to put us in.’’

It was just what the Phillies needed after watching their bullpen blow the last two games. They have their swagger back just in time for a trip to Citizens Bank Park where they have the biggest home-field advantage in baseball.

“It was a risky play because they have a really good catcher and really good infielders that make that play probably seven out of 10 times at least,’’ Realmuto said. “We just got lucky they didn’t make a good throw back to the plate.

“But what they did to us the last two games, coming back, they had all of the momentum in the world, and we had to try to do something early in the game to get it back.’’

The double steal, called by third base coach Dusty Wathan, gave Stott the option of trying to steal second. If he went, Harper was instructed to take off. If Moreno doesn’t throw down, the Phillies have two runners in scoring position. If Stott is thrown out, the worst that happens is that Realmuto leads off the next inning.

Yet, it was executed to perfection.

“If Bryce doesn’t run right when he’s supposed to,’’ Stott said, “he’s thrown out. Last year, I ran the same play (against the Mets), and I was thrown out by 10 feet. It’s a big-time play.

“There’s a lot of stuff that has to go right so it’s tough on the defense. He’s got to make a good throw to second, a good throw back to home, he’s got to tag him. He ran it perfect for us.’’

Bryce Harper's score on a double steal was a message-sending moment for the Phillies.
Bryce Harper's score on a double steal was a message-sending moment for the Phillies.

It turned out the Diamondbacks didn’t make one good throw, and you better believe that when they take the field to work out Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, defending the double steal will be on the agenda.

“We work on that a lot,’’ D-backs manager Torey Lovullo says. “I think if we just play pitch and catch, and he drives the throw into home plate and gives Gaby a chance to catch that ball, and lay the tag down on Harper, he is out by eight, 10 feet.

“The play didn't surprise us. We were anticipating it. It was well-timed by our guys. We just didn't finish the play.’’

Whether the D-backs were caught off guard or not, the double steal immediately gave the Phillies momentum, allowed them to forget the nightmare of the last two nights, and put all of the pressure on the D-backs.

“That was massive,’’ said Schwarber, who now has 20 postseason home runs in 63 postseason games, tied for fourth all-time with Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. “You can’t understate how big it was to be able to score first to get those runs across, and let Wheeler do his thing.’’

And, oh, did Wheeler come through at a time the Phillies desperately needed it.

“You can't say enough about him,’’ Harper said. “I told him after the game, like, 'You're one of the best pitchers I've ever played with, man.' I've played with a lot of good ones, and he's easily top three.

“It's incredible what he does. It's so much fun to watch. I love playing behind him. It’s incredible. He's legit, man.’’

Certainly, the timing was impeccable. The Phillies’ bullpen was exhausted, using 11 relievers in the last two games to combine for 26 outs. Wheeler came out and absolutely dominated. He pitched seven innings, giving up six hits while striking out eight, leaving with a 6-1 lead.

“You're definitely thinking about it coming into the game,’’ Wheeler said. “I know the bullpen was taxed a little bit, so I needed to go deep, and obviously I wanted that to be quality innings. So, I was able to do that, and save the bullpen a little bit.’’

He might have also saved their season with the Phillies now going home, where they have the greatest postseason winning percentage in baseball history, just one game from a return trip to the World Series — and perhaps a rematch against the defending champion Astros.

If it happens, it would be the first World Series rematch since 1977-1978, when the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees met.

“If we were to make it there, and they make it there,’’ Wheeler said, “it'd be pretty cool. It's really hard to do, making it to the World Series, so two teams to make it there back-to-back would be pretty awesome.’’

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phillies punch Diamondbacks in mouth, get swagger back in NLCS Game 5