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Mudville: November 30, 2022 2:45 pm PDT
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Speaking Baseball

BY KEVIN KERNAN

The Philadelphia Phillies have had a tactical edge this postseason because their manager Rob Thomson speaks the language of baseball. He does not speak the language of Nerds.

Because he interacts with his players in that way, they understand the mission.

Win baseball games. Do whatever it takes to win baseball games.

So while teams like the Yankees putter around with an Exit Velo offense, Thomson has his players convinced that putting the ball in play is the mission.

If you want to have a successful team, more managers need to be like Rob Thomson. More managers need to speak the true language of baseball. The Nerds have changed the words of baseball, but the game hasn’t changed, it’s still about doing whatever you have to do to beat the other guy and that is The Story this week.

It’s not just about what information and numbers spit out of a machine, it’s about doing baseball things to win baseball games and the Phillies this postseason have made what some would call a miraculous run to the World Series.

I don’t call it miraculous. I call it baseball.

Do what it takes – whatever it takes – to win and you might be 4-0 in first games of postseason series like the Phillies. Do what it takes, whatever it takes, and you might go ahead pull off one of the biggest World Series upsets in baseball history with an 87-win team that snuck into October because Rob Manfred wanted to make October more like March.

If the Phillies go on to win the World Series, the 2006 Cardinals with only 83 victories during the regular season will be the only team with fewer wins.

That’s a big if, of course, because the Houston Astros are such a formidable opponent, but Thomson’s Phillies believe and that is half the battle, the other thing thing is they are doing the little things right, like putting the ball in play as they did in Game 1 when they were trailing Justin Verlander and the Astros 5-0, but came back to tie on a slew of base hits, not home runs, base hits. The home run would come later when J.T. Realmuto, the best catcher in baseball, homered in the 10th inning Friday night at Minute Maid Park to take a 6-5 lead and veteran closer David Robertson, who was looking for any MLB job, not too long ago, hung on for the save, with the potential tying and winning runs on third and second base.

The last such catcher-deciding home run in extra innings in a World Series game was Carlton Fisk way back in 1975.

These Phillies bend but they don’t break, and they came away with that 6-5 victory in Game 1 over Houston.

They did lose 5-2 last night to the Astros but as we all know, nothing good ever comes easy.

All that comes from Thomson who was hired by Dave Dombrowski, one baseball man hiring another baseball man, there is a lesson to be learned here owners, but most of you are too stubborn to see it or learn it, you will continue to go on your merry Nerd way.

I love what Billy Martin once said about the art of managing. “Always looking for an opportunity out there to create something. But get it quick. Right now. Not two innings from now.’’

Here is what I mean by speaking the baseball language.

When the Phillies were mounting their comeback, it was Thomson who said in the Phillies dugout, “We got this guy!’’

Never mind that this guy was not just another guy in Justin Verlander, Thomson repeated what ballplayers have been hearing their whole lives in he dugout when they have a pitcher on the ropes.

“We got this guy!’’

It’s the universal language.

Players are not robots, they need to think the game and perform and the Phillies have done that under Rob Thomson.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 29: Nick Castellanos #8 of the Philadelphia Phillies walks to the dugout in the ninth against the Houston Astros in Game Two of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Then after the Phillies tied the game at 5-5, Thomson did not hesitate and called on lefty Jose Alvarado with one-out in the fifth, setting the tone: “Do whatever it takes.’’

It says Game 1 but we are playing it like a Game 7.

A lot of whatever it takes means playing outstanding defense, making a play bigger than yourself, such as the sliding catch made by Nick Castellanos in right field that saved Game 1 in the bottom of the ninth to end the inning. If he doesn’t make that catch the game is over.

From the day he took over for the tightly-wound Joe Girardi, Thomson made sure to go back to baseball basics. When he got the job I was on both WFAN and WIP soon after with Ricky Ricardo and I told Ricardo that this was a brilliant choice by Dombrowski because Thomson is both a baseball man and a man with a sense of humor who will keep the players loose, but most importantly he is a tremendously organized baseball man, who will teach fundamentals, essentially having put together all the Yankees spring trainings and their template of success when the Yankees were a real baseball organization and not the present organization run by Nerds and mental skills coaches, who never really get on the players for mental and physical mistakes.

Thomson would clean up the Phillies act, an act that desperately needed to be cleaned up and he did it with the help of his coaches like Bobby Dickerson who has done a tremendous job with the infield and players like third baseman Alec Bohm, who was lost under Girardi, and shortstop Bryson Stott.

A scout I trust deeply told me that for the first week of his leadership Thomson instituted infield and PFP, pitchers fielding practice, before games.

The country club was closed.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 29: Jose Altuve #27 of the Houston Astros reacts after an error in the eighth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Two of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Thomson, a defensive savant, made it clear, defense was important.

“Rob is very honest, he’s very genuine and I think that is why the players love him,’’ one astute MLB evaluator told BallNine. He understands the language of the clubhouse. “You can see the players truly respect him and he respects the players.’’

It’s not rocket science, it’s baseball.

Did you happen to listen to the Castellanos interview with Ken Rosenthal after Game 1?

This might have gotten past you and you might have been sound asleep because the game ended so late, but Castellanos was asked about his improved defense this postseason and he gave a most honest answer.

“I was going to do everything I could not to let it drop,’’ Castellanos said of his sliding catch, knowing if the ball dropped Jose Altuve would have scored the winning run from second base in that ninth inning.

Now the honest part.

“I think, a lot of times, I have troubles keeping attention during the regular season, every day, nine innings,’’ Castellanos said. “But with the postseason, this kind of baseball is incredible, you don’t have a choice but just to be locked in watching swings, watching the balls come off the bat and I think that is kind of why I’m playing better.’’

Watching the ball off the bat is what it is all about for an outfielder, it’s not about checking a Nerd cheat card in your back pocket or your cap, it’s about you reading the swings and the ball and being invested in the game.

Players are not robots, they need to think the game and perform and the Phillies have done that under Rob Thomson.

It’s simple, focus and watching swings, that is a direct result of Rob Thomson coaching. For his 28 years with the Yankees, one of Thomson’s many jobs was to coach outfield defense. He gets his players to buy-in on the complete job, focus and watch the swing and how the ball comes off the bat. It’s a little thing, but it turned out to be a big thing.

Baseball is a constant battle of little things that turn out to be big things and in the World Series everything is big.

There are no shortcuts, unless you electronically steal signs, and the Nerds are always looking for shortcuts but baseball men are looking for it to be done the right way. Rob Thomson looks for it to be done the right way and that is why he brought in left-hander Jose Alvarado in the fifth inning with one out to face the Astros lefty slugger Yordan Alvarez.

His explanation for going to Alvarado was right on the money too when in the in-game FOX interview he said it in plain simple baseball language, “I’m just thinking we got the momentum back, the three and the two (runs), got it tied and I didn’t want them to do anything right there. He’s our best guy on those left-handers in that spot, so, that’s why I went that way.’’

Simple, direct. Players respect that so much. The Phillies bullpen held the rest of the way and did not surrender a run to make the 6-5 win possible.

I’ve said it before, in all my years around the Yankees, when I needed something baseball explained to me in a direction fashion, in baseball language, I would go to Rob Thomson. It could have been a cutoff play or a misplay by the outfielders, anything baseball. It could have been spring training or the postseason and Thomson always had the answer.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 29: Alec Bohm #28 of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrates a run with Kyle Schwarber #12 in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros in Game Two of the 2022 World Series at Minute Maid Park on October 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Dave Dombrowski being around the game his entire life knew that Rob Thomson spoke baseball fluently and that is one of the reasons why he picked Thomson to take over with Girardi’s Phillies at 22-29. Eight straight wins showed immediately he made the right decision, the players were not as tense because Thomson is not as tense as Girardi and he had all the baseball knowledge a lifetime in the game afforded him.

Thomson also has this little saying, and he used it for media and for players, always offering it with a smile to put you at ease, “Try not to screw it up.’’

It’s a small thing, but it’s a big thing. It helps keep the players relaxed.

There is still such a long way to go in the World Series. The Phillies may not be able to find the same magic they used to beat the Cardinals, Braves and Padres but for the fourth straight series they won the opening game and that sets a tone and all four victories were on the road.

Win the game you are playing and worry about tomorrow tomorrow.

In Game 3 of the NLCS against the Padres, Thomson managed like it was Game 7 not Game 3 and he did the same thing in Game 1 of the World Series against the Astros, managing like it was Game 7.

Players notice and the good ones respond, that’s how superstars become super like Bryce Harper and J. T. Realmuto. After that Game 1 win against the Astros, Realmuto said it perfectly, in clear, precise baseball language:

“I thought when Rob brought Alvarado in that early in the game in that big of a spot, I thought it was kind of the key in the game,’’ Realmuto said.  “He even said on the mound, ‘This is the earliest I’ve brought him in, but these outs against three of their toughest hitters are huge right here.’ … He just pushed all the right buttons from there and the guys responded.’’

Compare that logic to some of the explanations Yankees fans had to hear all year long from Aaron Boone, who tries to serve two masters, the Nerds and the players and his word salad usually leaves you shaking your head.

Other managers have been caught without their best relievers in the game at a critical point in these playoffs against the Phillies, it happens a lot.

When they were looking for a manager, Brian Cashman, to his credit, gave a long interview to Thomson, a five-hour interview plus his 28 years on the job for the Yankees, but the Yankees could not see the simple wisdom in Thomson’s approach.

 

Like everything else with the Yankees, they have to wow you with terms like “the Whirly’’ or “Hit Strikes Hard.’’ The Yankees love to be mysterious and that is a flaw.

Sure, it all sounds good on the Zoom call or the board room with Hal Steinbrenner or the job interview or when you are trying to mesmerize the media, but it sure ain’t baseball.

Rob Thomson is baseball, direct and honest, just like the game itself. He also has a saying, something he noted during the season when Bryce Harper returned to the lineup in late August which really got the Phillies going into playoff mode.

“My father once said a really bright executive knows how to take credit for stuff that falls in his lap,’’ Thomson explained on why he put Harper in the four hole on Harper’s return.

Harper continues to hit fourth in this World Series. He’s not batting his star second or leadoff, he’s putting him right in the meat of the order. It’s fun to watch. In all the big spots the Phillies have been ready and relaxed under Rob Thomson.

His message is clear. He speaks the players’ language, the language of baseball.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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