The Phillies' offense, for the vast majority of the season, has relied on walks and home runs to score.
Its calling card has been plate selection. Make the starting pitcher work, get him out early.
On Friday night against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets, the Phillies played a different brand of baseball. They "went against their norm," as Gabe Kapler put it.
Rather than make Syndergaard throw a lot of pitches in the first inning, the Phillies attacked early in the count. The Phils swing at the first pitch less than 22 other clubs, but at one point in the first inning, three consecutive hitters put the first pitch in play.
And 11 pitches into Syndergaard's night, he was down 3-0.
Kapler's rationale was that against a pitcher like Syndergaard, you're playing a dangerous game if you fall behind in the count. But the strategy also made sense based on how Syndergaard has pitched of late. Coming into Friday's game, he had averaged nearly two fewer pitches per inning over his last five starts than he did in his first 11. Syndergaard's strikeout numbers have been down and his groundball rate has jumped. He's been trying to be more efficient, to get outs earlier in counts, and on Friday, the Phillies took advantage of those early fastballs.
They also ran all over him. It's well known across baseball that Syndergaard is slow to home plate and doesn't concern himself much with holding runners. And so Friday night, everyone on the basepaths had the green light.
Jorge Alfaro stole two bases. Carlos Santana stole one and could have had two if a pitch earlier in the game wasn't fouled off. Maikel Franco stole his third career base. Cesar Hernandez swiped a bag for the second straight game.
For the Phillies against Syndergaard, pretty much every single or walk was worth two bases.
“It’s definitely an Achilles heel of mine,” Syndergaard told reporters, “something that’s been disappointing the last three years and was somewhat embarrassing tonight.”
"Jose Flores, our first-base coach, was especially prepared tonight, as was Rob Thomson, our bench coach. They did an amazing job understanding that not only was Syndergaard going to be slow to the plate — which we knew, it's no secret — but also, there were some things we were able to pick up on that gave us some advantages," Kapler said after the Phillies' 4-2 win (see first take).
"That's a testament to our staff and how hard they work."
But if you thought the Phillies' success on the bases Friday meant they'll continue to be this aggressive, think again.
"We'll go away from our norm when we have to," Kapler said. "We're not going to do it very often, we're not a team that's going to give away outs on the bases. We're going to be careful about when we steal them, but when we know we need to and when we have some information that helps us do so, we're gonna jump on that opportunity."
Ironically, one player who didn't steal a base Friday was Roman Quinn, who went 1 for 4 with his first big-league triple. The way he was flying around the bases after Austin Jackson couldn't snag the ball in deep left-center field, it looked for a moment like Quinn might have an inside-the-park home run. But he scored in the inning anyway, when Alfaro was able to make contact on a 1-2 pitch to break his bat with a bloop RBI single to center.
Whether it's the coaching staff speaking or his teammates, the word that always comes up with Quinn is "energy." Against the Mets, Quinn fed off the energy of watching so many of his teammates swipe bags.
"We wanted to run as much as possible," Quinn said. "Flores pulled us aside and was like, 'Yo, we need to steal more bases.' And we did so. Santana, Cesar, we did a good job on the basepaths."
On Saturday, the Phillies will face an even better pitcher: Jacob deGrom. He has a 1.81 ERA, a .205 opponents' batting average and 195 strikeouts in 159 innings. deGrom has a fastball that reaches the upper-90s and he can spot it on every corner. He also has a breaking ball that freezes hitters. He's a lot like Aaron Nola, just with a little more velocity.
deGrom is also the kind of pitcher you need to score unconventionally against. He's another guy you can't fall behind. Everyone in the Phillies' clubhouse knows it, including the Phillies' own Cy Young candidate.
"There's been a lot of Cy Young award chatter leading up to today [with Nola] and you saw why," Kapler said. "He rises to the occasion, he's ready for the biggest moment, he likes the brightest spotlight. We saw it at Fenway Park. I think he knew Syndergaard was on the mound on the other side and I think he knows that deGrom is pitching tomorrow's game. It's like no spot is too big, too bright. He just elevates his game."
Nola, the recipient of those early runs Friday, struck out 11 Mets over seven innings even without his typical pinpoint control. In 25 starts, he's 14-3 with a 2.24 ERA — the exact same ERA Roy Halladay had through 25 starts in 2010.
If the Phillies can muster three or four runs off deGrom, they can help boost Nola's Cy Young chances. It won't be easy, though, considering deGrom's allowed more than three runs one time all season.
More on the Phillies