There was a small explosion in the visitors’ bullpen at Nationals Park in the ninth inning Wednesday night.
A hot foot gone bad?
Not a bad guess considering Phillies relievers were pretty bored that night thanks to Zach Eflin’s special delivery, an eight-inning gem that kept the team’s postseason hopes alive heading into the final weekend of the season.
The small explosion was actually a sudden burst of emotion, cheers and assorted other euphoric shouts, all spontaneous, all in salute of Andrew Knapp, who had just put an exclamation point on a 12-3 victory with a three-run home run.
“There was a lot of yelling and screaming,” said Dusty Wathan, who heard it all from the third-base coach’s box. “It wasn’t the normal stuff you hear now and then. It was extra loud.
“Those guys out there know the work Knapp puts in and they really respect it. His teammates love him. That’s why they were so happy for him.”
Knapp, the Phillies’ backup catcher since 2017, is one of the team’s success stories this season. In a condensed schedule, and with starter J.T. Realmuto missing time with a hip injury, Knapp has gotten a higher percentage of playing time than usual and he has responded, hitting .303 with two homers, 15 RBIs and a .919 OPS in 83 plate appearances.
He’s also made the best defensive showing of his career, thanks to hours of blocking, framing and throwing work done with Wathan, Bob Stumpo and Greg Brodzinski, who all play an important role in catcher instruction.
Wathan said Stumpo has been “a huge asset” in Knapp’s improvement. The two played together in the minors and share an excellent chemistry from the video room to the field.
Wathan, a former catcher who managed Knapp in the minors, sees improved receiving and throwing in Knapp. The smarts and game-calling skills have always been there. Now, Knapp is putting it all together and carving a nice role – one that could be quite important if the Phillies re-sign Realmuto this winter and look to maximize his long-term impact by utilizing him occasionally at first base and at designated hitter, if that spot, as expected, comes to the National League full-time.
“I’m seeing the guy we had in Reading,” Wathan said. “He can be a player that helps the offense and commands a pitching staff. He did it back then and he’s doing it now.
“It’s hard when you’re not playing every day. You go from playing every day in the minors to playing maybe once a week and you’re asked to hit a 95-mph fastball. And, as a switch-hitter, he has two swings to keep intact.
“It takes time to learn how to be a backup and stay sharp, offensively and defensively. He’s figured that out and had a tremendous year for us.”
The evolution of the backup catcher in baseball is interesting. There was a time when the backup catcher used to jog to the bullpen in the fifth inning and warm up relievers. Now, teams have two bullpen catchers – Stumpo and Brodzinksi handle the chores for this club – and the backup sits in the dugout. In this model, the backup stays fresh but misses out on a nightly opportunity to work on his receiving skills.
Knapp, 28, fills in this void at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when he catches the starting staff’s between-starts bullpen sessions.
“I think he’s learned how important that bullpen work is,” Wathan said. “Even though it’s not a game, he sees all our pitchers and that helps in the game. That hard work has not gone unnoticed.”
Some areas of Knapp’s improvement are more subtle than his work in a crouch behind the plate. His ability to lead and guide a pitcher through the highs and lows of a start have been evident. Witness last Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. Vince Velasquez was putting up zeroes in the early innings against Toronto but wasn’t long for the game because his pitch count – 69 after three innings – was soaring. Knapp sidled up to Velasquez in the dugout.
“Hey, we need some quick innings,” Knapp told the pitcher. “Let’s bear down and get some early contact.”
After the game, Knapp expounded on the conversation with Velasquez.
“Vinny has swing-and-miss stuff and he knows it,” Knapp said. “But it was taking too many pitches. We talked about when it’s 0-2, try to get the strikeout, but when it’s 1-2 or 2-2, we need the ball in play.”
Velasquez ended up going six innings – his longest outing of the season – and leading an important 3-1 win.
It’s not out of the question that Knapp would start Game 1 of the playoffs – if the Phillies get there. He has a great connection with Eflin that dates back to the minor leagues. He has caught eight of Eflin’s 10 starts this season, including the right-hander’s last two season-saving gems. Eflin would start the first game of the playoffs if the Phillies get there. With Rhys Hoskins out, manager Joe Girardi could use Realmuto at first base as he did Wednesday in Washington.
Getting a start in the postseason would signal a remarkable journey for Knapp, who over the last couple of seasons endured criticism from fans because he didn’t have enough success hitting those 95-mph fastballs in his one start per week.
“I think everybody is aware of what’s being said out there,” Wathan said. “It’s hard not to run across something with social media the way it is. Good or bad, you’re going to hear it. It takes a toll on some guys, no doubt.
“But Andrew is very mentally tough, very focused, very prepared. The way he handles himself in our clubhouse as a player and a person is incredible.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him this season.”