In a lost season for the Philadelphia Phillies, it has been the infrequent moments of joy that have come with less and less frequency that keep the spark in the hearts of fans.
On Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park, Cody Asche sparked that joy in the fans hearts with a 9th inning, 2-out, 2-run walkoff home run that provided the winning margin in a 7-5 victory over the playoff-bound Chicago Cubs.
For 6 1/2 innings this game had been a classic pitcher’s duel, with Phillies rookie Jerad Eickhoff matching Cubs replacement starter Travis Wood nearly pitch-for-pitch. The only blemish for Eickhoff was a 2-out solo home run by Cubs’s power-hitting rookie Kyle Schwarber, his 16th of the season.
Eickhoff allowed just that lone run on 3 hits across 7 innings, striking out 8 and walking 3 batters, with 61 of his 95 pitches going for strikes. He lowered his ERA to 3.90 in giving the Phillies a 4th Quality Start out of the 5 that he has made so far in his short MLB career.
For the Cubs, Wood was called upon to start at the 11th hour when rain threatened the game. Cubs’ manager Joe Maddon decided to hold veteran Dan Haren out for better weather on Sunday, and go with Wood and his bullpen in this one.
It paid off for a while, as Wood shut the Phillies out over the first three innings, and then newcomer Trevor Cahill, signed as a free agent in mid-August, shut them out for the next three.
With a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the 7th, Maddon turned to reliever Justin Grimm, and the Phillies finally found an arm to their liking. It started well for Grimm, who struck out the first two Phils’ batter swinging. But then with two outs and nobody on, Grimm walked Aaron Altherr.
That walk was followed by Andres Blanco reaching on an error by 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo. It is an old truth in baseball that walks and errors are likely to kill you, and it certainly proved true in this case.
With two on and two out, Phils’ interim skipper Pete Mackanin sent veteran Ryan Howard up as a pinch-hitter for Darin Ruf, hoping to get something out of the once “Big Piece” in a big moment in a lefty-hitter vs righty-pitcher situation.
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Howard delivered, lining a double to right field to score Altherr and tie the game up at 1-1. Grimm then continued to unravel, walking Brian Bogusevic to load the bases, and then Darnell Sweeney to force in Blanco with the run that put the Phillies up 2-1.
Maddon had seen enough, and made the change to bring in Zac Rosscup to face Cesar Hernandez. The Phils’ 2nd baseman came through, lacing a bases-clearing double to left. The Phillies suddenly had breathing room with a 5-1 lead heading into the final two frames.
But this is a talented group of Cubs hitters, and they didn’t stay down, rallying to tie it in the top of the 8th with a big 4-run burst of their own. That damage came against relievers Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez. Chris Couglin delivered a 2-run double off Garcia to pull the Cubs within 5-3, and Gomez then yielded an RBI double to Kris Bryant and a sac fly to Miguel Montero that tied it at 5-5.
That setup the pivotal moment in this contest. Bryant, who had moved to 3rd on the sacrifice fly, then tried to score on a grounder to Hernandez off the bat of Javier Baez. Hernandez fired home, with catcher Erik Kratz supplying the tag just ahead of Bryant’s slide for the 2nd out. The play was reviewed by the replay officials, and the result stood in the Phillies’ favor.
Mackanin turned to his closer, Ken Giles, to completely put the fire out of the Cubs’ rally. Giles struck out Addison Russell swinging to end the 8th, and then got through the 9th inning as well, setting the stage for the bottom of the 9th dramatics.
In that home 9th, Maddon brought on his closer, Hector Rondon, and the righty recorded the first two outs of the inning. But then the veteran Kratz worked a 2-out walk, which brought Asche to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Giles. Asche guessed right on a first-pitch fastball, and drove it out over the right field wall for the walkoff homer.
The win coupled with a loss by the Atlanta Braves to the New York Mets leaves the Phillies just one game up on Atlanta in the race to the bottom of the MLB standings, and the reward of the top pick in the 2016 MLB Amateur Draft. Both teams have 19 games remaining on the 2015 regular season schedule.