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Phillies two-strike approach led to Harper’s big moment

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Putting the ball in play worked, how about that?

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper’s grand slam last night will probably go down as the most memorable moment of the 2019 season, unless of course, the Phillies make the playoffs. But as much as Harper’s blast, it was four at bats by the bottom of the lineup that helped get the Phils’ most dangerous bat to the plate in the 9th.

There is a belief by many new-school baseball minds that strikeouts are no big deal and that they are no different that pop ups, fly outs, and grounders.

Most of the time, these people are correct. But obviously, teams make fielding mistakes and players make mental errors. And last night, in the at-bats that led to Harper’s grand slam, the Phillies put the bat on the ball and helped win a thriller.

With the Cubs leading 5-1 and one out, Cesar Hernandez was due up. The Phillies odds of winning the game were at 0.6%, according to Fangraphs. So yeah, the chances of winning this ballgame were pretty much nil, and a home run in this spot doesn’t do much good, as it still leaves the team down by three runs.

So, with a full count, Hernandez did not swing for the fences. Instead, with two strikes, he hit a weak ground ball to shortstop that forced David Bote to rush the play, resulting in an error.

With two strikes, Cesar put the ball in play and forced Bote to make a difficult play to get him out. A strikeout in that spot would have done no one any good, as you can’t make an error when the ball’s not put in play. It’s physics.

Scott Kingery then came up to the plate. He fell behind 0-2 in the count and, on a fastball on the outer edge of the plate, stroked a sharply-hit opposite field single to right. Kingery didn’t try to do too much, didn’t try to pull the ball, and instead went with the pitch and smoked a ball to center.

That brought Brad Miller to the plate. Miller can hit the longball once in a while, but again, in this spot, a two-run shot still leaves the Phillies down by a run. Swinging from his heels made even less sense once Miller found himself in an 0-2 hole, so Miller did what a player in this situation should do 99 times out of 100.

He focused on putting the ball in play. And that’s what he did.

Perhaps 99% of the time that ball is hit right to the second baseman and it’s a game-ending double play. But at least there’s a 1% chance it will find a hole. Had Miller whiffed, no ball has a chance of squeaking into the outfield.

With that RBI single and the score 5-2, Roman Quinn stepped to the plate. The diminutive Quinn has surprising power for a speedy guy, and yes, a three-run homer would have tied the game. One could understand if Quinn had tried to muscle up and be the hero in this plate appearance.

However, once again, a Phils hitter was faced with a two-strike count — in this case, a 2-2 count. Quinn, like Hernandez and Miller before him, put the ball in play with two strikes, avoided the strikeout, and got a bit of luck as the ball ticked off the glove of second baseman Ian Happ for an RBI single that made the score 5-3.

Four plate appearances at the bottom of the lineup. Four plate appearances with two strikes. Four plate appearances that avoided strikeouts. Four plate appearances in which each hitter reached base.

Those four key plate appearances got the Phillies back to the top of the lineup, and the rest, as we know, is history.

The Phils’ 22.7% strikeout rate this season is middle-of-the-pack in MLB (16th), but far too high when you consider the team’s .420 slugging percentage is just 23rd and their 154 home runs are 22nd. In the 9th inning last night, Phillies hitters put the bat on the ball and good things happened.

This will not always be the case. Many nights those three ground balls are caught and turned into easy outs.

But in situations like last night, down by four runs with just two outs left and a 0.6% chance of winning the game, putting the ball in play and avoiding strikeouts, especially with two strikes, helped them win their biggest ballgame in years.