So as the young, scrappy Phils entered last night’s 9th inning trailing the lowly Miami Marlins 2-1, they stared down the barrel of a disappointing loss. This four-game series at Citizens Bank Park was an opportunity for the Phillies to either keep their division rivals at bay or put some distance between them, but they were three outs away from blowing their first opportunity to do so.
But the Phils didn’t lose. Instead, they did this.
Franco’s walk-off, three-run blast will obviously be a memory no one will forget from this 2018 season (deserving of the Titanic Theme treatment), his helmet-knocking-off bat-flip and all. But Franco would never have had the opportunity to win the game had his teammates not first put together a string of plate appearances that showed the maturity and patience that many of them have displayed all season long.
Leading off the inning, it was clear Miami closer Kyle Barraclough didn’t have good control, and Rhys Hoskins, who earlier in the game had hit his 22nd home run of the season, patiently allowed Barraclough to walk him on five pitches. Hoskins could have chased out of the zone, trying to tie the game up with one swing, but he didn’t.
Scott Kingery came in to run for Hoskins, which brought up Odubel Herrera. Herrera was a little jumpy, popping up a 1-0 pitch for the first out of the inning. Up next was Carlos Santana, who fell behind 1-2 before squibbing an infield single just past the pitcher’s mound.
Santana put the ball in play. He didn’t hit the ball hard, but he also didn’t swing and miss. He made something happen and the Phillies got lucky. You can’t get lucky if you strike out, and it wouldn’t be the last time the Phils would make their own luck in this inning, either.
With runners on 1st and 2nd and one out, Asdrubal Cabrera came to the plate. Certainly, Cabrera, in his first home game as a member of the Phils, would have loved to be the hero and author the walk-off hit that would send his new teammates into euphoria. But, Cabrera allowed Barraclough to make life tougher on himself, drawing a four-pitch walk to load the bases.
Now, it was on Nick Williams, the second-year player who has been one of the most productive players in the National League over the last month-and-a-half. Williams was nearly hit by the first pitch thrown by Barraclough, and eventually worked a full count, laying off a 2-2 breaking pitch that many young players would have hacked at and popped up somewhere.
The improvement in Williams’ plate discipline this year has been noticeable. Last year he walked in 5.8% of his plate appearances and struck out 28.3% of the time. this year, his walk rate is up to 7.9% and his strikeout rate is down to 23.5%. It’s no coincidence he’s hit .312/.390/.505 since July 1.
And last night, Williams’ plate discipline paid dividends. On the full count pitch, he made contact. It wasn’t great contact. Like Santana, Williams barely knicked a dribbler in front of the plate that made it past the mound and was scooped up by the Marlins’ third baseman Martin Prado, who only had one play at first base, which allowed the tying run to score.
Two pitches later, on a 2-0 count with runners on 2nd and 3rd, Franco worked his magic, and the Phillies maintained their half-game lead over the Braves, as well as a five-game lead over the Nats.
For much of the season, fans have been frustrated by the inconsistencies of the offense, and for good reason. There are days they make you want to punch a wall. Fans have been frustrated by the team’s stated desire to draw walks and see a lot of pitches. The argument has been that they’re too patient, and maybe that is true from time to time.
But the analytic argument has always been that the more patience a hitter displays, the better the pitches are that batter will see. Eventually, that hitter will then have to do something with those pitches of course, but hitters should want to do things that will get them good pitches to hit.
This season, Phillies hitters have walked in 9.9% of their plate appearances, second only to the Dodgers’ 10.0%, and they’ve seen 4.04 pitches per plate appearances this year, again, second only to L.A.’s 4.05. The improvement team-wide has been stark.
Last night’s 9th inning was exactly the type of payout a team is supposed to see after being so patient. That’s the formula — to let a pitcher pitch himself out of a game or into trouble. After that, the key is to make the pitcher pay, something the Phils will hopefully do more of as the season moves along.
With first place on the line against a middling opponent, Maikel Franco made the pitcher pay, set up by his teammates doing what they’ve done all season long.
They were patient. And this time, they walked away with one of their best wins of the season because of it.