Snake It ‘Til You Make It: Kelly’s Heroics Force NLCS Game 7

Merrill Kelly
Arizona Republic

PHILADELPHIA — In the franchise’s biggest game in 22 years, the Diamondbacks played their best game of the NLCS. They finally did serious damage against the Phillies’ rotation, tagging Aaron Nola for four runs in five innings. Merrill Kelly navigated a rough opening stretch and grew stronger as the game grew on, holding Philadelphia to a single run in five innings of his own.

The Diamondbacks’ 5–1 win pushes this series to a Game 7, the first in franchise history for the Phillies, a club that’s been around longer than 12 U.S. states. It also raises a new set of questions: Can Brandon Pfaadt recreate his series-changing Game 3 magic? Can the Phillies right the ship offensively after a dud of a performance in an essential game? And the aliens who abducted Nola before the second inning: Who are they? Where did they come from? And what do they want?

The teams traded jabs and feints for three hours and two minutes, but everything that mattered in this game happened in a nine-pitch sequence in the top of the second. Through his first three starts of this postseason, Nola had been unhittable, allowing two runs in 19 2/3 innings over three starts, holding opponents to an OPS of just .445. He pitched around a Gabriel Moreno single in the first inning and was quickly ahead of the first batter of the second inning, Tommy Pham.

“Nola is a great pitcher, great numbers against me. He fell behind 1–0, and then he threw a ball at the top of the zone, and I fouled it back,” Pham said. “Immediately I was, like, ‘Damn, I missed my pitch,’ because, as you guys have seen this series, I haven’t been getting too many balls out over the plate … I got to 2–2, and it just looked like he missed his spot … It came in, and I didn’t miss it.”

Nola’s two-strike knuckle-curve was supposed to drop out of the strike zone but instead hung around Pham’s belt. At 35, he is no longer the MVP vote-getter he was in the middle of the last decade, but… well, you heard the man. He didn’t miss it, shooting a screaming low-trajectory line drive into the left field seats.

Nola got ahead of the next batter, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., but missed badly with his second pitch — outside for a ball — and then his third. After Game 1, I noted that Zac Gallen does not have the velocity to throw center-cut fastballs past the Phillies’ big hitters. Nor does Nola, who left a 90-mph sinker down and in; Gurriel whacked it into the stands about a section to the right of where Pham’s dinger had landed moments before.

After those two mistakes, Nola’s command evaporated. He walked Alek Thomas on four pitches, then grooved one of the middle-middle–est fastballs you will ever see to Evan Longoria. He was lucky it was only a double, and even luckier that the Diamondbacks couldn’t manage to get Longoria home from scoring position with nobody out. That was the first of six runners they would strand in scoring position, also hitting into two inning-ending double plays with a runner on first and one out.

But the Phillies were no less profligate. They scored through a Brandon Marsh double early in the bottom of the second and put the tying run on base with two outs in the inning, but Trea Turner (0-for-4 on the night) stranded the runners. They put a runner on base in six of the first eight innings, but as Kelly settled in, it seemed less and less likely that they would mount a comeback.

He began cautiously, issuing three walks in the first two innings, two to Kyle Schwarber and one to Bryce Harper. After the game, Kelly said that his Game 2 start, in which he allowed three home runs, was a failure of execution, not of concept. He went into Monday evening having made his peace with putting the Phillies’ two biggest power threats on base periodically if that meant limiting the damage overall.

“Harper and Schwarber are both super locked in right now,” Kelly said. “They’re not missing too many mistakes, so I’m not too mad about putting them on base right now. If the worst thing they get all day is a walk, I went in tonight being okay with that, just trusting that I had the confidence to get the other guys out.”

After the second inning, Kelly was magnificent; the only baserunner he allowed in his last three innings of work was Alec Bohm, who squeezed a seeing-eye single through the infield in the third. Along the way he struck out Marsh, Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto, and Harper twice. In total, he threw six different pitches, each at least eight times, and got at least one whiff on all six.

“If I’m living on the edges … it forces them to swing at pitches that maybe they wouldn’t normally or maybe they shouldn’t be swinging at,” Kelly said. “And when I’m locating those pitches, especially with the ability to change directions and change speeds, I think that’s probably when I’m at my best.”

Kelly was visibly irked at manager Torey Lovullo when he was told he wouldn’t be coming back out to pitch the sixth. But by that time, he’d done something no other player had this postseason: put the Phillies on the canvas. Heading into Game 6, they had lost three games this postseason, all by a single run. They were walked off in one of those cases and put the tying run on base in the ninth in the other two. They’d led every game at the stretch.

More to the point, in the Phillies’ first 11 games of this postseason, they totaled one plate appearance in which a home run would not have tied the game, given them the lead, or extended a lead: the first batter of the top of the fourth inning of Game 4 of this NLCS. That batter was Schwarber, who hit a home run. But in Game 6, Phillies hitters came to the plate 25 times knowing that a home run would not erase the deficit. The size of the task before them was tangible, and it only got harder when Ketel Marte added RBI hits in the fifth and seventh to swell Arizona’s lead.

“It was considerably more quiet for those middle innings when I think things can get really ramped up here,” Lovullo said. “Once they get somebody on base or they score a run, it picks up again. But we kept tacking on a run … I just feel like those early runs let us exhale a little bit.”

Indeed, the crowd did get ramped up in the bottom of the seventh, when Marsh’s leadoff single gave the Phillies the closest thing they had to late-inning life. But when Ryan Thompson and Andrew Saalfrank got out of that inning, the Diamondbacks seemed to have the game well in hand.

In the seventh and eighth, Phillies manager Rob Thomson left his high-leverage relievers on the bench. Instead, he opted to see if Orion Kerkering and Craig Kimbrel, the two pitchers whose abject inability to throw strikes had extended the series to this point, could find the zone. (Kerkering: Yes, though he surrendered a run. Kimbrel: Sort of.) By the bottom of the eighth, a visible minority of the crowd at Citizens Bank Park had opted to try to beat the traffic.

“We’re a very resilient group. You can say when our backs are against the wall, it brings the best out of us,” Pham said.

Now the Diamondbacks, the least-fancied team in either playoff bracket, are a game from the World Series. Not only that, but they also just took it to a Phillies team that had until that point looked like it had the combination of heat, talent, and luck that it takes to win a title without breaking a sweat. Headed into Game 7, coming off their most lopsided loss since September, now is the time to time to start sweating.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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speedy
4 months ago

I’m pretty neutral but if you’re old-school you gotta like the Diamond Backs cool demeanor. you did an earlier article on the manager and it shows. Every Phillies moment is marked by exaggerated body movements and points to the dugout. A lot of posturing. Really annoying. So for that I’m pulling for the DBacks. And the pressure is all on the Phils.

Old Washington Senators Fanmember
4 months ago
Reply to  speedy

In game 7’s, the pressure is on everybody. The baseball cliche, “momentum is only as good as today’s starting pitchers” is trite, but also tried and true.

50/50 game – the home field gives the Phillies a slight advantage, especially if they rake a HR or two early…

We shall see – Game 7’s are great theater!

Dmjn53
4 months ago
Reply to  speedy

Old-school fans don’t exist anymore. Now it’s people like this that just complain about anything