BY KEVIN KERNAN
Baseball is supposed to be fun.
In Philadelphia, they spell it Phun.
The Phillies have become the anti-Padres, the anti-Yankees, the anti-Mets, the anti-Blue Jays. The list goes on and on. This is baseball with passion and the Phillies beat the mighty Braves, 3-0 Saturday night at Truist Park, a complete team victory to take a 1-0 lead in the NLDS.
Philadelphia’s two $300 million men came up big with shortstop Trea Turner turning the most important double play of the year in the eighth and Harper lining a solo home run in the sixth, an absolute bullet (115.3 mph) off Braves ace Spencer Strider.
The Phillies are far from perfect, but they do baseball things well. And they are a joy to watch in this day and age where analytics rule the game. They care about each other and you can see that in the way they play the game.
More teams need to follow the Phillies model under baseball boss Dave Dombrowski.
The great irony here is that the Phillies have as their manager Rob Thomson, who spent 27 years in the Yankees organization as the most organized instructor imaginable. He leads but he doesn’t micromanage every aspect. He gives his players freedom. Thomson interviewed for the Yankees managerial job; he wanted to stay with the Yankees, an organization he had given his heart and soul to – but Brian Cashman said no.
Earlier this week I wrote on Bruce Bochy’s amazing impact with the Texas Rangers, who stunned the Orioles with a 3-2 win Saturday at Camden Yards to take a 1-0 lead in the ALDS. That Bochy column received an incredible response, especially from baseball people. In his own way Thomson is doing Bochy-like things for the Phillies.
A little side note. Another thing I like about Thomson is that he wore a baseball jersey in the wild card Game 1 matchup with the Marlins, a two-game sweep. Not a hoodie, a baseball jersey. He looks like a manager.
Asked about the care and love his team has for another, Thomson answered: “It’s as good as any team I’ve ever been around, if not better. I think our entire group, coaching staff, support staff, players, they all care about each other. They all want to win for each other. They all want to win for the organization and the city.
“They have a whole lot of fun, but they know when to get serious and when to get focused. And I just love being around these guys. I love coming to the ballpark every day.’’
Dombrowski has discovered the secret sauce is people, not numbers – and that needs to be celebrated –and he also rebuilt the Phils’ bullpen which came up huge Saturday night with six relievers doing the job. With an off-day Sunday, the bullpen will be ready again for Game 2 Monday.
But it is not just Dombrowski and Thomson that make the Phillies go, they have a lot of baseball men and that makes a difference. The Phillies hitting coach is Kevin Long, one of the better hitting coaches in both the Yankees and Mets histories.
That’s baseball entertainment, folks. That’s what people want to see, and the cheesesteak infused Philly Phans can’t get enough of this team. Win or lose the Phillies leave it all on the field.
Harper, who once had a prodigious workout with the Yankees before being drafted by the Nationals, told people that day his goal was to wear the Pinstripes. It never happened.
Harper has since become a legend in Philadelphia.
Their shortstop Turner was 30-for-30 in stolen bases this season and was perfect in wild card round too, and stole two more bases Saturday night. The Phillies spent the money to get Harper and Turner. They were not trying to win this thing with the likes of Jake Bauers or Daniel Vogelbach.
Here is something else I like about the Phillies.
They have baseball instincts and play the game hard and with an edge.
To watch Harper run through the stop sign at third base and score the final run in the Phillies Game 1, 4-1 win over the Marlins Tuesday night was especially Phun as he knocked his helmet off as he neared third base to pick up a little extra speed, flew through Dusty Wathan’s two-handed stop sign, and when Harper triumphantly slid across the plate and stood up safe and roared like a lion, the crowd at Citizens Bank Park went nuts.
That’s baseball Phun in one highlight. That’s baseball entertainment, folks. That’s what people want to see, and the cheesesteak infused Philly Phans can’t get enough of this team. Win or lose the Phillies leave it all on the field. It’s never a Giancarlo Stanton half jog to first base. This is serious baseball.
The Phillies are trying to make it back to the World Series for the second straight year.
Dombrowski knows how to win. He’s proven it in Miami, Detroit and Boston, and once again is proving it in Philadelphia. He is not afraid to make the deals it takes to get over the hump. He listens to his baseball people. He goes for it and is building quite the organization in Philadelphia. That’s the thing. Talk to people who worked for Dombrowski and they loved the experience.
One of those hired by Dombrowski in Philadelphia was Preston Mattingly; that’s right, Donnie Baseball’s kid. Preston Mattingly is the director of player development and there has been an infusion of young major league talent with young centerfielder Johan Rojas and young right-hander Orion Kerkering, who started the season at A-ball Clearwater and pitched a shutout inning against the Braves Saturday night.
The Braves were shutout for the first time this season at Truist Park.
Dombrowski has won a pennant with each of those four teams I mentioned and a World Series with both the 1997 Marlins and 2018 Red Sox. Dombrowski is 67 years old, the same age as Brian Sabean, evidently 1956 was a good year for future baseball leadership and maybe some smart team, if there are any left, will hire Sabean.
“You can see the Phillies really love each other,’’ a top talent evaluator, who once worked for Dombrowski told BallNine. “That is one throwback baseball team and Dave Dombrowski is a real leader. What he has done in three years, using his experience, his understanding of how important all that stuff is. Yeah, he spent money but the money he spent is always the right money. It’s the same thing when we won the World Series in 1997. Everybody was spending money, but we bought the right players.”
Noted a scout: “In three years Dombrowski took a team that kept falling short with all the analytic nerds, and he got rid of people in the minor leagues, and he brought Preston Mattingly in. Now they have the minor league pitcher and player of the year coming up to help them.’’
Preston Mattingly of the Inland Empire 66ers before a game against the Lancaster Jethawks on September 4, 2009 at Clear Channel Stadium in Lancaster, CA. (Photo by Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
That would be Rojas and Kerkering, named the 2023 Paul Owens Award winners by the Phillies. The Phillies believe in scouting with the likes of veteran scout Sal Agostinelli, director of international scouting. Spend five minutes with Agostinelli, a Long Island native, and his love for baseball pours out as does his terrific sense of humor. One of the highlights of attending the New York Pro Scouts Hot Stove League dinner every year when I was in the area, was the cocktail hour and listening to Agostinelli’s stories.
When the former catcher was first approached about moving into the scouting world he stated, “The only thing I know about scouting is that it’s old guys in chairs.’’
He soon learned that scouting was much more than that.
Kerkering, 22, could be a wild card this postseason.
“I saw Kerkering in Clearwater and he was my No. 1 prospect that I saw this year and the fact that he went in the fifth round speaks volumes,’’ explained one scout. “This kid is 98-100 with a plus slider. Very good delivery that he repeats. There were like 151 guys picked ahead of him. They got Rojas for $10,000 and he is a Devon White / Andruw Jones type centerfielder. How about that?’’
Like all good teams there has to be a solid foundation of starting pitching. The Phillies starters pitched the third most innings in the majors this year, which enabled the bullpen not to get worn down.
Aaron Nola has his curve ball back and is not throwing as many cutters, so Nola has taken back control of what he was doing.
Zack Wheeler was magnificent in Game 1 against the Marlins. I texted with Wheeler this week and he is enjoying the ride and is looking forward to Monday night and his Game 2 start.
I was always in Wheeler’s corner and was shocked the Mets let him go to a division rival in 2020, but then again the Mets have perfected the art of going through players and GMs. The Billy Eppler situation this week is the latest Mets GM fiasco.
Zack Wheeler #45 of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches during the NL Wild Card game against the Miami Marlins on October 3, 2023 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Wheeler signing goes to former Phillies GM Matt Klentak, who did not get a lot right in his time in Philadelphia, but he sure got that one right.
Dombrowski took his time to look at the system and make changes.
At the time of the Preston Mattingly hiring in 2021, Dombrowski said: “Preston has a tremendous background for this position. He has the ability to combine and use the necessary analytical skills blended with his baseball knowledge and he possesses leadership capabilities that are apparent very quickly.’’
Mattingly had worked the previous five years for the Padres. Dombrowski keeps important notes on a yellow legal pad and he had been told by someone in baseball that Mattingly would be a difference maker – but at the time he had no openings. He put Mattingly’s name down on his notepad and when the time was right, Dombrowski interviewed Mattingly and then made him his director of player development, and Mattingly revamped the system. Mattingly is comfortable in the analytics world but also made it a priority to get the Phillies minor leaguers more on-field work.
Imagine that, young baseball players playing more baseball. Revolutionary.
I also love that Dombrowski referred to Mattingly as a “baseball rat.’’ Baseball’s version of a gym rat, fitting because Mattingly also played D-1 basketball.
Leadership, what a unique quality in leaderless bland baseball of so many major league operations.
Talent evaluators throughout baseball are quick to credit Preston Mattingly for how he is reshaping the Phillies by developing the young players in the system; and is not afraid to move them along rapidly as he did with Orion Kerkering, going from Clearwater to Jersey Shore to Reading to Lehigh Valley and then up to the Phillies.
Harper, of course, is the lead player on that team and I still find it hard to believe that when he was a free agent the Yankees did not even kick the tires with Brian Cashman actually telling reporters that year of Harper’s signing, “No time at all all winter have I said I’m looking for an outfielder. The Harper stuff… I’m surprised you’re still asking.’’
Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Orion Kerkering (50) during game 1 of the NLDS between the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves on October 7, 2023, at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by John Adams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
And so it goes. The Yankees are sitting at home with a dearth of left-handed power. Harper helped take the Phillies to the World Series last year and now they are up 1-0 in a battle with the mighty Braves in the NLDS, thanks, in part, to his home run.
The thing I like best about the Phillies is that they play as a team and that is vital.
“They are fun to watch and kudos to (owner) John Middleton, the night they clinched he had bags of signed baseballs that he was giving away to the fans,’’ said one scout. “That night they hit three million fans for the year and he walked around the stands and shook people’s hands all night long.’’
The Phillies have the best homefield advantage in MLB.
Middleton is an owner who cares and is engaged and understands his fan base. He would not be mocking them like Hal Steinbrenner mocked the Yankee fans for being upset with the team earlier in the year when the Yankees showed signs of serious dysfunction.
Middleton also is not afraid to make changes. He rolled the dice with the analytics driven Klentak but switched to Dombrowski, a proven winner, a baseball man.
Never underestimate the value of an owner who is competitive and wants to win and understands his team, his city and his fans. He’s a Philadelphia kid who understands success.
The Phillies and their front office and owner don’t live in an ivory tower.
Remember it was not too long ago when the Phillies were being run by Klentak and manager Gabe Kapler, so Middleton has learned what works and what doesn’t work.
The Phillies have found a winning formula in Dombrowski and Thomson, the rabid Philly Phans and of course, the Phanatic, the best mascot in baseball. It’s a wonderful baseball experience at CBP – the fans know the game and are desperate to win a World Series. The Phillies have won only two World Series since 1883, in 1980 and 2008.
If they can get past the Braves, these Phillies have a great chance for No. 3 (Bryce Harper’s number) because they have the talent and baseball wisdom, they play for each other and they are so much Philly Phun to watch.