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With veteran Evan Longoria at the plate and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. standing at second base, Alek Thomas was taking his hacks in the on-deck circle, readying himself to pinch hit for third baseman Emmanuel Rivera.
Gurriel had doubled to start the bottom of the eighth inning, but the Diamondbacks were in a precarious position. They trailed the Phillies 5-3 in the game and they trailed 2-1 in the series, with veteran closer Craig Kimbrel on the mound.
When the count on Longoria reached 2-2, Lovullo called Thomas over. He wanted Thomas to look at him before walking up to the batter’s box when Longoria’s at-bat was finished. “I might change my plan with pinch hitting you,” he said.
Depending on the outcome of Longoria’s at-bat, Lovullo was thinking of pulling back Thomas and using Jordan Lawlar as a pinch hitter instead to lay down a sacrifice bunt.
But, when Longoria lined out to left field, it was Thomas’ moment. Runner at second, one out, down by two, bottom of the eighth, Game 4 of the NLCS. No pressure.
Kimbrel, who took the loss in a dramatic walk-off victory for the Diamondbacks the night prior, once again had spotty command. He started Thomas with a curveball on the inner half of the plate but just below the knees. Thomas started his swing, but did not finish it. Ball one.
Thomas, 23, has struggled against curveballs since making his major league debut last May. Last year, he hit .167 on curveballs in the regular season with a 27.1 percent whiff rate. This year, struggled even more, hitting .130 with a whiff rate of 33 percent.
With the count 1-0, Kimbrel went back to the breaking ball. Once again, he missed his spot, this time well off the inside corner.
Now down 2-0, Kimbrel and Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto switched gears. They decided to attack Thomas inside with four-seam fastballs. Thomas fouled the first one off, took the next one for a ball, then fouled off another. 3-2 count.
Kimbrel tried to go inside with the heater one more time. This time, he missed his spot, and Thomas pulled it into the Chase Field swimming pool, tying the game, sending a sellout crowd of nearly 48,000 fans into a frenzy.
“I finally got something over the heart of the plate,” Thomas said, “it felt like it was right down the middle.”
The pitch was, in fact, not at all right down the middle. It actually was hardly even a strike.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Thomas’ homer made him the ninth player in MLB history with a game-tying, pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning or later of a postseason game. He is the youngest player ever to do it. Thomas’ homer was also the fourth pinch-hit home run in the playoffs in Diamondbacks history.
The stakes could hardly have been higher. The difference between being down 3-1 in a series and being tied 2-2 is enormous. Thomas’ homer propelled the Diamondbacks into the thick of this NLCS against the Phillies. It is now, effectively, a three-game series. The Diamondbacks need just two more wins to stamp their ticket to the World Series.
“That play is definitely something that you see in your dreams,” Thomas said after the game. “For it to come in real life and for it to happen to me is just awesome. I’m so grateful to have that moment. It’s just unreal. Just crazy. I haven’t really processed it yet, but it was awesome.”
Of course, the Diamondbacks would not have won the game were it not for Gabriel Moreno, who singled home a run in the third inning and did the same in the eighth, giving the Diamondbacks a 6-5 lead. That go-ahead hit will be remembered in Arizona for a long time.
But it was Thomas’ home run swing that, in a matter of seconds, resurrected the Diamondbacks’ NLCS hopes. It will go down as one of the best moments in the history of the franchise.
The significance of the home run aside, this was not an especially typical home run swing. Hitting a pitch that was painted on the outer edge of the plate 412 feet over the fence was one thing. Pulling that pitch was another.
“Usually, we see that ball go to left-center,” Diamondbacks hitting coach Joe Mather said after the game.
“It was an outside pitch on the outside corner and he pulled it,” Pavin Smith added. “Crazy.”
In 813 career regular-season plate appearances, Thomas had never pulled a pitch on the outer third of the plate for a fly ball of any sort.
Adding difficulty to Thomas’ situation was the fact that, as mentioned earlier, he had entered the game as a pinch hitter, a challenge he had not yet faced in the playoffs.
Up until Game 3 on Thursday, Thomas had started every postseason game. With the team needing an offensive jolt and the Phillies starting lefties in both Games 3 and 4, Thomas came off the bench in both.
He had only 11 career pinch hit opportunities in his career entering Game 4 on Friday. In them, he had been quite productive, going 4-for-10 with a triple and three singles. Thomas’ eighth-inning dinger against Kimbrel was the first pinch-hit homer of his career.
“It’s so hard to do that, man,” Longoria said. “Coming in to pinch hit in a game in April or May facing the back end of the bullpen is not an easy thing to do. To be able to slow down that moment, works a great at-bat to get to 3-2.
“It wasn’t a bad pitch.”
Off the bat, most everyone at Chase Field knew where it was headed. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen devolved into chaos. Closer Paul Sewald tried to keep it together as he was warming up to pitch the ninth inning.
“It’s so hard in those moments to be a fan,” Sewald said. “I want to be a fan but I had to go in the game.
“A couple bullpen guys — I hope they got it on video — forgot I was warming up in that situation and maybe needed to relax in front of where I was trying to throw.”
The fact that an Alek Thomas NLCS home run will forever be firmly planted in Diamondbacks lore is unprecedented given where he was just over four months ago: Triple-A Reno.
Thomas struggled to open the 2023 season, particularly against left-handed pitching, and the Diamondbacks sent him down to make some mechanical adjustments in mid-May.
He spent a month in the minors experimenting with various changes. On June 19, the Diamondbacks brought him back up to the majors, and he was instantly more productive. From June 19 through July 29, he hit .297/.311/.515. His production tapered thereafter, however; he slashed only .213/.264/.319 the rest of the way.
Thomas is one of 10 players on the Diamondbacks’ playoff roster who spent considerable time in the minors during the reguar season, joining relievers Andrew Saalfrank, Joe Mantiply, Kevin Ginkel, Luis Frías and Slade Cecconi; first baseman/outfielder Pavin Smith; catcher Jose Herrera; and infielders Jordan Lawlar and Emmanuel Rivera.
In the postseason, Thomas has hit just .192 (5-for-26), but three of his five hits are home runs. The first was a solo shot in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Milwaukee Brewers that sparked a Diamondbacks comeback win. The other was a solo shot against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 1 of the NLDS that came at the end of a 14-pitch battle with Dodgers righty Michael Grove. It was the longest postseason at-bat to end in a home run since pitch counts were first tracked in 1988.
For as memorable as Thomas’ previous two playoff homers were, neither holds a candle to Thomas’ eighth-inning dinger against the Phillies on Friday.
“Hopefully,” Longoria said, “when we’re raising the trophy, you look back at moments like that, and you’re like, ‘These are the situations and the big hits and the moments that got us to this point.'”
Top photo: Rob Schumacher/The Republic
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