PITTSBURGH — Corey Knebel had tried the pickoff move earlier in his career, but it had never worked.
“I think it might have worked once, but nobody was there to cover,” Knebel said late Saturday night in the Phillies’ clubhouse at PNC Park.
This time it worked. All the way. Pitching with a one-run lead and no outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Knebel lifted his left leg, spun toward second base and fired a strike to shortstop Didi Gregorius to get Pittsburgh Pirates rookie Oneil Cruz.
The pickoff at second base was one of the plays of the game and it helped the Phillies lock down a 2-1 win over the Pirates. It was the Phils’ second straight extra-inning win over the Pirates. The Phils, winners of four in a row overall, will look to make it five straight as they go for a four-game sweep of the Pirates on Sunday afternoon. Aaron Nola will pitch for the Phillies.
The win was big for the Phils. It came on a night when St. Louis was beaten by Washington. The Phils (54-47) now lead the Cardinals by a full game for control of the third and final National League wild-card spot.
The Phils didn’t do a lot of scoring — they left the bases loaded in the first inning on their way to an 0-for-9 performance with runners in scoring position — but that’s not to say they didn’t have some clutch performances in pulling off the one-run victory.
Lefty Ranger Suarez turned in his third straight strong outing since missing time with back spasms. He pitched six shutout innings, scattered three hits, walked one and struck out eight.
“Typical Ranger,” manager Rob Thomson said. “Soft contact, throwing strikes, pounding the ball in on right-handed hitters, using his off-speed stuff.”
Suarez has not allowed a run in 16 innings over his last three starts. The Phils have monitored his innings as he’s returned from the injured list. His leash will be longer in his next outing.
Suarez’ batterymate JT Realmuto continued to swing a hot bat. He belted a solo homer to right in the top of the sixth to get the Phillies on the board. Realmuto is hitting .349 (23 for 66) with five homers in his last 19 games.
Jose Alvarado gave up a solo home run and the lead in the seventh, but Andrew Bellatti and Knebel pitched scoreless balls in the eighth and ninth to get it to extra innings. Bellatti struck out the side in the eighth and Knebel struck out two in the ninth.
The Phils took the lead in the top of the 10th when Gregorius started on second base and scored on an errant throw to third base by first baseman Michael Chavis.
With Seranthony Dominguez, Brad Hand and Connor Brogdon all unavailable for workload reasons, Thomson asked Knebel to go to the mound for a second inning of work. That was made possible because Knebel threw just 10 pitches in the ninth.
In the dugout before heading back to the mound in the 10th, Realmuto and pitching coach Caleb Cotham reminded Knebel to keep Cruz close at second.
Knebel did more than that. He extinguished Cruz. Game-changing play. Suddenly there was one out and no one on base. Gregorius made a brilliant defensive play for the second out before Knebel got Cal Mitchell to ground out to end the game.
“It was incredible,” Realmuto said of Knebel’s pickoff of Cruz. “I haven’t seen that work too much.”
“I wanted to keep him close,” Knebel said. “I think it even caught me off guard.”
Phillies starting pitching has allowed just six runs in 25 innings over the current four-game winning streak.
The bullpen has been excellent for weeks. Since June 1, he has recorded a 3.46 ERA and the team is 33-18 over that span.
Knebel had a difficult start to the season, but he’s been outstanding for several weeks. He has racked up 14 straight scoreless appearances.
Realmuto described Knebel’s stuff as “electric” Saturday night. Indeed, the pitcher’s fastball averaged 97 mph, up 1.4 mph from his season average. His curveball was sharp. He threw 24 pitches and got five swings and misses.
“He had everything going,” Realmuto said. “Fastball command, his curveball was down in the zone. His stuff was really good. I didn’t look at the numbers, but his fastball felt heavy. He was electric.
“Earlier in the season, he had trouble getting ahead, but now he’s back in the strike zone, attacking guys early and getting swings and misses.”
Knebel could be a huge difference maker for this club down the stretch if he continues to throw the ball like he has in his last 14 outings.
“That’s baseball,” he said. “You go through hot streaks. You go through cold streaks. Just keep riding the wave.”
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