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PHILADELPHIA — When the Diamondbacks completed their three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, there was no shortage of reasons why.
Clayton Kershaw recorded only one out in the series, allowing six runs in his brief Game 1 start. Lance Lynn became the first pitcher ever to allow four homers in one inning in a postseason game. David Peralta, James Outman and Jason Heyward went a combined 1-for-18 at the plate.
Perhaps the biggest reason of all of them, though, was the gaping lack of production from the Dodgers’ two best players, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman. The duo went 1-for-21 in the series, the only hit being an infield single.
“I did absolutely nothing to help us win,” Betts told reporters after the series.
“Three days, not good by us,” Freeman added.
“I know that those guys are prepared,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Those are our guys, two great players. It’s one of the things that baseball — I don’t have an answer, I really don’t.”
Ultimately, the Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers because the Dodgers’ stars did not live up to the names on their jerseys.
On Monday night in Philadelphia, in front of 45,000-plus spirited fans at Citizens Bank Park, the narrative was quite different. Stars finally got to the Diamondbacks — and it sure did not take long.
When Philadelphia Phillies lead-off hitter Kyle Schwarber stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning, Diamondbacks starter Zac Gallen had a feeling he would swing at the first pitch.
Sure enough, Gallen mistakenly placed that four-seam fastball middle-in, and Schwarber followed the Phillies’ game plan: Be aggressive on any pitch in the zone, no matter the count.
Schwarber launched that 92 mile-per-hour heater 420 feet off the second-deck scoreboard in right field, 117.1 mph off the bat.
“We’re not looking to take hitters’ pitches,” Schwarber said after the game. “[Gallen] has had such a great year to where if you get him in the zone and you’re going to get a good swing, you don’t want to miss it.”
Schwarber swung at the first pitch in only 23.3 percent of his plate appearances this year (league average is 31 percent), but he had incredible success when he did. On those swings, Schwarber he hit a whopping .458 with a 1.220 slugging percentage. His 12 first-pitch homers in the regular season trailed only the Miami Marlins’ Jake Burger.
Two batters later, Bryce Harper got a four-seam fastball in a similar spot, center-cut and slightly elevated. He, like Schwarber, sent it 420 feet to right field.
“We didn’t want to miss pitches over the plate,” Harper said after the game, echoing Schwarber’s sentiment. “It wasn’t thinking about, hey, one pitcher or one pitch and not another pitch and just try to sit on this or sit on that. It was just trying to don’t miss the ones over the plate because, when you get in deep into counts against [Gallen], he is really tough to hit.”
The Phillies were mistake-hunting, trying to stay ready for any opportunities that Gallen gave them. On Monday night, he gave them too many.
After the Phillies took an early 2-0 lead on dingers from Schwarber and Harper in the first inning, Nick Castellanos — who has now homered five times in his past three playoff games — followed with a homer of his own the very next inning.
Gallen started the at-bat with a pair of curveballs. Castellanos laid off the first, which was well below the zone, and swung through the next one, which was right at the knees.
The third pitch of the at-bat was — yep, you guessed it — a fastball, and Castellanos crushed it over the right-field fence. 3-0 Phillies.
This Gallen four-seamer was better placed than the others, near the outside corner. Nonetheless, it lacked the characteristic life that Gallen usually gets on his four-seamer, and it landed in the seats as a result.
“Their plan was to be super aggressive,” Gallen said after the game. “They got some fastballs in locations where they could handle them. I can’t really be too mad at their approach, just got to execute pitches a little bit better.”
When all was said and done, the Phillies’ most well-established hitters — Schwarber, Harper, Castellanos, Trea Turner and J.T. Realmuto — went a combined 7-for-18 with three homers, one double, one walk, five runs scored and five runs batted in.
On the flip side, the Diamondbacks struggled to get anything going against Phillies starter Zack Wheeler. He allowed only three baserunners over six innings, lowering his career postseason WHIP to a remarkable 0.70. That is the lowest WHIP by any pitcher in MLB postseason history (minimum three starts).
“It was power stuff,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said. “It was just like get up and go, here it comes. Whether it was two or four-seam, it was just really, really aggressive stuff with his fastball.
“He beat us with his best pitch.”
Wheeler made two starts against the Diamondbacks during the regular season. On May 22, he threw fastballs 55 percent of the time. On June 13, he threw fastballs 47 percent of the time. On Monday night, Wheeler threw fastballs 70 percent of the time.
With his four-seamer, Wheeler went right after Diamondbacks hitters. He threw it in the zone 73 percent of the time, generating 10 whiffs in the process.
Wheeler only used his two-seamer (or sinker) to right-handed hitters, and it was very effective. He threw 11 of them in the game, eight of which were in off the plate. The D-backs chased six of those, whiffing four times.
“Credit to him,” Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker said. “Seemed like he was throwing [pitches] where we wanted to. His stuff is always there. It’s always plus, elite stuff. So, when he’s locating, it’s tough.”
After Corbin Carroll opened the game with a jam shot single to right field, Wheeler retired 15 batters in a row, striking out seven of them.
The Diamondbacks got on the board against him in the sixth, however. Evan Longoria started the frame with a single, and Geraldo Perdomo followed with a wall-scraping, two-run home run down the right-field line.
After hitting one homer from May 29 through the end of the regular season, Perdomo has now homered in back-to-back to postseason games. This one cut a 5-0 Phillies deficit down to 5-2.
“It was a really good sign for my teammates,” Perdomo said after the game, “like, we can come back.”
The D-backs continued to show some fight. In the seventh, they took advantage of a throwing error by Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez, eventually scoring a run on a sacrifice fly by Alek Thomas. That cut the deficit to 5-3.
“Anytime you can score runs,” Walker said, “especially late, there’s some momentum there. That’s a really good bullpen. There’s a win there to put up a couple.
“That’s the kind of resiliency that we need this time of year, especially a team like that in an environment like this.”
The Diamondbacks brought the tying run to the plate in both the eighth and ninth innings, but their rally fell short.
With co-ace Merrill Kelly on the mound in Game 2, it is now especially important that the Diamondbacks find a way to win. Although Games 3 and 4 will be played back home at Chase Field, the Diamondbacks will likely be relying on a hodgepodge of rookie starters and bullpen arms.
Ultimately, the Phillies’ stars did what stars often do in Game 1, and the Diamondbacks lost as a result. Harper reached base three times. Castellanos and Schwarber homered. Turner had two hits. Wheeler dominated.
For a Diamondbacks team that effectively neutralized Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman in the previous series — plus Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta in the Wild Card Series — it was a serious change of pace.
Continuing to hold such high-caliber players to miserable performances was likely not sustainable, however. A Harper-esque hitter, a Wheeler-esque pitcher was going to get to them eventually. Now, let’s see how they respond.
Top photo: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY
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