NLCS Game 3: Cardiac Arrested

Two League Championship Series Game 3s, two postseason juggernauts stopped. One night, the Astros slap aging and rusted Max Scherzer silly en route making the ALCS a 2-1 affair. The next afternoon, the Diamondbacks do what Cardiac Craig Kimbrel all but begs them to do and turn the NLCS likewise into a 2-1 affair.

Until both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks more or less snuck single runs home in each half of the seventh, their Game 3 was mostly a pitching clinic. In fact, until Diamondbacks reliever Ryan Thompson wild-pitched Bryce Harper home in the top of the seventh, no scoreless postseason game ever ended its scoreless status that way.

Both starters, Ranger Suárez for the Phillies and rookie Brandon Pfaadt for the Diamondbacks, pitched into the sixth without so much as a peep across the plate on either side.

The bullpens took over and, while a few things got a little dicey between them, they held the tie and threatened to send the game to extra innings. Then Phillies manager Rob Thomson made his big mistake. He called upon Kimbrel to hold fort for the bottom of the ninth.

If this game was in Philadelphia, even the Phillies's loud and loyal fans would have had the crash carts on double red alert. But in Chase Field, the Diamondbacks's snake pit, the only thing anyone on that crowd wanted to hand Kimbrel was a loaded triple-decker hamburger smothered in heavy sauce.

This was a little too classic Kimbrel. He fell behind Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. leading off, 3-0, pumped two strikes called on the corner, watched Gurriel foul a pair off, then walked him low and away.

He fell behind Pavin Smith, a late game entry pinch hitting for the day's designated hitter Evan Longoria two innings earlier, 2-0, Gurriel stealing second on the second pitch.

Then, a swinging strike, followed by a grounder up the middle that Phillies third baseman Bryson Stott grabbed on a slide but left himself no play. With Gurriel the potential winning run now on third.

Next was Emmanuel Rivera, playing third for the Diamondbacks. Kimbrel got his first first-pitch strike of the assignment while Smith took second on fielders' indifference. A foul strike, a ball low, then a grounder toward third speared by Phillies shortstop Trea Turner, who threw home and nailed Gurriel at the plate.

Back in Philadelphia, the sigh of relief probably crossed three state lines — but the crash carts remained online and on double red alert. With good reason.

Kimbrel started Snakes shortstop Geraldo Perdomo with a ball way off the plate before Perdomo fouled the next pitch away and swung for strike two. This was the first time Kimbrel got ahead of a batter in the inning. That'd teach him. Two straight balls, low, to follow. Ball four to load the pillows. A first pitch strike to second baseman Ketel Marte. A second pitch fastball a little up...

Bing! It wasn't up enough for Marte to miss shooting it back up the pipe for a base hit sending Smith home with the game-winner.

Yes, it was only Game 3. Yes, the Phillies still have the NLCS advantage. But, yes, they may have to think twice before deciding they can live with the cardiac side of Kimbrel much longer.

"He just couldn't find the zone consistently," said Phillies manager Rob Thomson postgame, "and sometimes that happens to Kim," Thomson said. "But he'll be available [for Gamr 4], and he'll be ready to go."

Hear me out. This guy has been a great pitcher in the past. Somehow, he still holds a lifetime 2.47 fielding-independent pitching rate (FIP), a 0.99 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, and a 3.87-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, not to mention a 14.2 strikeouts-per-nine rate. But his real greatness may well be behind him, even if he was an All-Star in his first Phillies season this year.

Now, let's look at Kimbrel by dividing his career between his final of three regular seasons with the Red Sox and his seasons since:

2010-2018 — 1.80 ERA; 1.81 FIP; 0.91 WHIP; 3.3 BB/9; 14.8 K/9; 4.44 K/BB
2019-2023 — 3.57 ERA; 3.68 FIP; 1.16 WHIP; 4.1 BB/9; 13.0 K/9; 3.15 K/BB

Yes, he can still strike the other guys out like a virtuoso. But since leaving Boston he's walking about 1 more per 9 than before and striking 1 less out. He's allowing more to reach base in the first place since leaving Boston. His ERA/FIP were about dead-even during those great first nine seasons of his career, but they're 2 runs higher since that 2010-2018 term. And, from 2019-23, his FIP (kind of your ERA when the defense behind you is taken out of the equation) is 11 points higher than his ERA.

Since somehow earning six saves despite a 6.74 ERA in the 2018 postseason, Kimbrel has been up and down in October. In 2020, he pitched an inning and a third shutdown relief in the National League wild card game for the Cubs. In 2021, he appeared in three American League division series for the White Sox — and surrendered 2 earned runs in three innings.

Until Thursday afternoon, Kimbrel this postseason looked great if you didn't look past the surface numbers. In division series Game 1 he got the side in order to finish the Phillies' win — without a strikeout. But he needed Johan Rojas's spectacular running catch in division series Game 4's seventh to save him in the Phillies' win.

He got the NLCS Game 1 save credit with a swinging strikeout and a game-ending double play — after he walked his second batter of the ninth. Entering Game 3, Kimbrel had an ERA of zero ... but a 3.71 FIP. But after Game 3, they became 2.09/5.07.

A 5.07 FIP is not conducive to late-inning survival.

"Some days you get them, and some days you don't," Kimbrel said, too matter-of-factly, after the game ended. "Today just wasn't my day."

Remember: it wasn't Kimbrel's fault the Phillies' usually formidable offense was kept to three hits on the day, or scored their only run of the game on a walk, an infield hit, a double play pushing Harper to third, and the wild pitch enabling Harper to score. But given the chance to push Game 3 to extras tied at one, Kimbrel went cardiac once too often.

That may not be a thrill or a chill the Phillies can afford much longer. If at all.

He'll be available tomorrow, and he'll be ready to go. Which "he'll" — the guy who can be as tight shutdown as they come, or the guy who can't stop the high wire act until the cable snaps under his feet? These Phillies deserve to know, because these Diamondbacks won't be kind if the wrong one's ready.

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