SAN DIEGO- It’s here. Try to hit it.
Has baseball ever been distilled to something more basic than that? Such bravado disappears in the game. The spin is in it. Disappointment dominates. For the first time in recorded history, major league pitchers threw fastballs with less than half their pitches, 48.6%. Just six years ago, it was 56.3%. Over 68,000 fastballs went poof! in the name of advanced metrics, pitch labs, and incredibly detailed batter scouting reports.
The Phillies don’t play this postmodern, passive-aggressive game. They turn up the heat and turn back time. The padres learned that very hard lesson Tuesday night in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
Philadelphia held San Diego to one hit, one single, while throwing 62 percent fastballs. It started with seven innings from Zack Wheeler, who averaged 97.2 mph on his radiator, making him the smoothest pitcher of the night for the Phillies. Seranthony Dominguez (99.6) and Jose Alvarado (99.8) took care of the last six outs by turning up the heat on the grill even more.
“Look, it’s our identity,” pitching coach Caleb Cotham said. “We do it differently than what is in vogue. Especially at this time of year, we’re not as concerned about batting weaknesses as some others. We are going force on force.
To beat the Padres, you must control Juan Soto and Manny Machado. Wheeler carefully threw Soto. But what Philadelphia did with Machado tells you all you need to know about his preferred path to the World Series: It’s here. Try to hit it.
The Phillies threw Machado 19 pitches; 16 of them were fast bullets clocked between 95 and 100 miles per hour. And when we talk about fastballs, we’re not talking about those fancy cut fastballs, which are modified sliders. We’re talking country ball warmers: four seams and sinkers.
Machado saw a throw below 93 mph all night. He went 0 for 4 against that barrage of fastballs. It was only the second time this year that Machado went 0 for 4 in which every outing resulted in a fastball.
“Tonight it worked out,” Cotham said. “But that’s our strength. It is our identity.
The Padres went 0 for 6 on first pitches, including five on heaters in the strike zone. Translation: Even when the San Diego hitters sat on first-pitch fastballs in the zone, they didn’t do any damage with them.
“They’ve got some good hitters and you don’t want to be behind in the count,” Cotham said. “So we will try our luck 0-0 rather than fall behind. And the way to do that is to attack the area. If we have to adapt, we adapt. But it’s our strength and we’ll stick with it until we have to adjust.
The Phillies are the swaggiest team still standing. They play with their chests and chins up and take on teams with the confidence of a bare-knuckle brawler. That’s what happens when you’re loaded with power pitchers, your offense is built on crushing home runs, and you spend 20 of the last 23 days on the road fighting for your life in the playoffs.
“There’s no doubt we’ve bonded even more as a group,” said Bryce Harper, who punched his fourth playoff home run, a modest hit compared to Kyle’s 488-foot rocket bat. Schwarber. “Belief. We believe in ourselves.
The Phillies finished the regular season with a 10-game trip to barely qualify as the sixth and final seed, won back-to-back games at St. Louis in the wild card series, won one of two in Atlanta, came home and closed that LDS with two wins and opened that NLCS with another road win, with Aaron Nola (zero earned runs in two playoff starts) receiving the ball Wednesday in the game 2. They are 6-1 this playoffs, including 4-1 on the road.
“The guy who goes [in Game 2]Cotham says of Nola, “may not have the Wheels bike, but he has impeccable, off-the-charts control of his fastball.
During the regular season, the Phillies threw 52 percent fastballs, the third-most in baseball and the highest rate of any playoff team. Among starters with at least 2,300 pitches, Wheeler ranked ninth in fastball rate (59.4%), Ranger Suarez ranked 11th (57.9%), and Nola ranked 23rd ( 52.2%) – all well above the major league average.
Wheeler throws harder than he has all year and has allowed just four runs in his last six starts since the Phillies – against his stubborn wishes – let his arm rest by placing it on the IT.
“It was a bit of a gamble when you consider how we got in,” Cotham says, “but the way Bailey Falter was throwing, we thought we could afford it because we wanted to have Wheels at its best when we had the no longer need him.”
Dominguez, whose bike rose 2 mph in Game 1, and Alvarado, up 0.2 mph, are also throwing better than they have all year.
“Yes,” Cotham said when asked if all three are pitching at their peak in October, “and that’s a credit to our training and conditioning staff who have tweaked many programs slightly, in especially with the recovery, as well as the buy-in we’ve gotten from all the players. Everything we’ve invested over the year is paying off.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a real Phillies game without a banana peel defense. What could have been a game-ending double play turned into a tense moment when third baseman Alex Bohm missed a throw to second baseman at ninth. This caused Machado to appear as the green light.
Receiver JT Realmuto rallied the players around Alvarado on the mound. How would they get out?
“Trust a hundred [mph]said first baseman Rhys Hoskins. “It’s pretty easy to do. It was nice to all get together too.
Alvarado fell behind Machado with a 94 mph cutter. Petco Park fans were in all their screaming, towel-waving glory, expecting a sequel to the five-inning rally in the NLDS that killed the Dodgers. Alvarado would quickly calm them down.
Sinker at 99 for a called strike.
Lead to 100 for a flyball and the second out.
Alvarado then jumped past Josh Bell on a 101mph sinker before finishing him off with a 93mph cutter. The Phillies have thrown 23 of their 109 shots at 99-plus.
“We had a hundred on the left side after a hundred on the right side,” Hoskins said.
The content of the series has been fixed. The Phillies took control of it with a show of force at the mound and home plate. They have Wheeler and Nola lined up to pitch four of the first six games on complete rest, which could draw comparisons to Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling for Arizona in the 2001 playoffs.
To stop them, the Padres will need their own stable of stars to show up: Blake Snell on the mound in Game 2 and Soto and Machado in the batting box. They better hurry, because seven games into the playoffs, the Phillies are getting bolder with every sizzling fastball they throw and every mammoth home run they hit.
More MLB coverage:
• After a muted celebration, the Yankees head to Houston
• NLCS returns to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado
• NLCS Predictions: Expert Picks for Padres-Phillies
• Padres expose Dodgers flaws in stunning series win
• The Yankees will need a new manager next season