ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Aaron Altherr reached into his back pocket for the skinny on how to play Denard Span with a right-handed pitcher on the mound. The card said “R-5” so Altherr moved five steps to his right. A moment later, he made the play of the game in the Phillies’ sixth straight win, a 10-4 victory over the Rays that locked up the team’s second straight three-game sweep Sunday (see first take).
“Everybody notices when it doesn’t work, but it goes both ways,” Altherr said of the defensive alignment strategies that the team is employing under new manager Gabe Kapler. “We pretty much stick to the card we get. The card stayed true to the yardage there that time.”
Altherr’s diving catch on Span’s hard-hit, sinking liner to right ended the sixth inning. It came with runners on second and third and the Phils up by two. Had Altherr not made the catch, the game would have been tied heading into the late innings. Instead, the Phillies exploded for five runs in the eighth, three on Altherr’s three-run homer.
For Altherr, the catch was sweet. So was the home run. He had been just 2 for 34 on the season before it.
“Hopefully that means some good things are coming,” Altherr said.
Plenty of good things have come to this team lately. The Phils have won eight of nine. Sure, they have come against weak teams in the Marlins, Reds and Rays, but you can only beat who the schedule maker sends your way. Tougher tests will come, but at least the Phils have cleaned up where they should. They have outscored teams, 37-18, during their six-game win streak. At 9-5, they are off to their best start since their last playoff season, 2011. The offense has been robust. The starting pitching has mostly been good. The bullpen has been excellent. On Sunday, it picked up five innings and allowed just an unearned run after Ben Lively departed.
Reliever Luis Garcia said he was “lucky” Altherr made the catch on the liner he served up to Span.
“The read, the break, the laying out and the positioning were all spot on,” Kapler said.
It was the second time in three games the Phillies’ staff had an outfielder in the right spot to make a catch with the game on the line. Odubel Herrera benefited from positioning in Friday night’s win (see story).
The Phils had two big innings. Long before the decisive eighth, they scored four in the third, three coming on rookie Scott Kingery’s double on an 0-2 fastball from lefty Ryan Yarbrough. Half of Kingery’s 14 hits are doubles and he has 12 RBIs, second to Maikel Franco’s 15.
“Sweeps are tough to come by,” Kapler said.
The Phils hadn’t had a three-game sweep against an American League East club since Baltimore in 2003. They celebrated this one. Then again, they celebrate all wins with loud music and a portable light-show machine that they take on the road. Tommy Hunter was the mastermind of the postgame celebration routine and Brother Gabe is all for it.
“These guys know how to keep it light,” Kapler said. “I think there are plenty of guys smiling in our clubhouse right now, in part because they’ve made it an intention to have fun. I think it’s important in baseball because there’s so much stress and so much pressure and so much on the line each night to pick your times to indulge and have a great time and these guys know how to do that.”