Kyle Gibson tapped the outside of his mitt as he walked away from the mound after the top of the seventh inning Saturday night. It was subtle, understated, the mark of a pitcher who has been through almost everything in a 10-year major league career.
But there’s one thing Gibson hasn’t done. He has never started a playoff game.
Don’t look now, but the Phillies are marching to the postseason. They stomped the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-0, behind JT Realmuto’s three-run first-inning double and seven spotless innings from Gibson, and continued to torch the dregs of the National League Central. They’ve won six consecutive games, four over the gutted Cincinnati Reds and now two over the Pirates, with a chance for a sweep Sunday.
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This is what good teams do, and, if you hadn’t noticed, the Phillies are good. They are 50-26 since interim manager Rob Thomson took over for Joe Girardi, 2-0 with Bryce Harper back in the lineup after going 32-20 without him. And their odds of making the playoffs for the first time since 2011 have risen above 90%, according to almost every prognostication system.
“We’ve played so well that they feel it. They can taste it,” Thomson said before the Phillies maintained their five-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers for a playoff spot that is beginning to feel dowright inevitable. “We’ve got a good ballclub and we’re playing well and they’re hungry.”
Gibson has been to the playoffs. He made one relief appearance for the Minnesota Twins in a blowout loss at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the 2019 American League division series. But there isn’t an active pitcher who has started more regular-season games than Gibson (255) without getting the ball for a postseason start.
Even if the Phillies get Zack Wheeler back from forearm tendinitis, as they expect they will, and are able to arrange the rotation to have him and Aaron Nola start the first two games of a best-of-three wild-card series, Thomson would have to consider Gibson for Game 3. Or, at a minimum, Gibson would be in consideration for a start in the best-of-five divisional round.
Consider how Gibson has pitched lately. Since July 2, when he allowed four consecutive homers against the St. Louis Cardinals, he has a 2.80 ERA in nine starts. He will finish August with a 2.30 ERA in five starts. And in blanking the Pirates, he completed the seventh inning for the fifth time in 25 starts and lowered his ERA to 4.08.
“He’s just done a really good job of being able to mix his pitches,” Realmuto said. “Throwing everything for strikes.”
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That wasn’t the case early against the Pirates. Gibson said he didn’t feel sharp in the bullpen, struggled to get a feel for his changeup, and couldn’t lock in his delivery. He fell behind in counts early but escaped trouble. It helped that he picked off Greg Allen at first base with two on and two out in the second inning.
“The six-run lead helped,” Gibson said. “My changeup didn’t feel good until about the fifth inning. I feel like I was in 2-0 counts about three times an inning. But the six-run lead and the defense being right where we needed it was a big help.”
Gibson overcame a two-on, no-out jam in the fifth inning with a fly ball and back-to-back strikeouts of Kevin Newman and the dangerous Bryan Reynolds. And he worked around a leadoff double in the seventh.
But after scoring four first-inning runs Friday night, the Phillies jumped out against Pirates starter Tyler Beede. They led 3-0 after the first inning and 5-0 after the second before Nick Castellanos homered in the third.
The Phillies are 18-2 in their last 20 games against teams with losing records, with their next 16 games against out-of-contention Pittsburgh, Arizona, San Francisco, Miami, and Washington.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve played down to our competition sometimes,” Realmuto said. “This year, that’s a big difference in our season. Teams that we should handle we’ve played pretty well against all season.”
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It’s enough to get playoff visions dancing in the Phillies’ heads.
“You try to fight those thoughts away until you can clinch, but yeah, it’s something that you think about from a kid through high school to college to professional baseball, getting that chance to start on the biggest stage possible,” Gibson said. “I’m excited for the opportunity, but we’ve got a lot of business to take care of. We want to be at the right spot at the right time.”
Here’s one way not to get hurt by Harper: Don’t pitch to him.
With two on, two out, first base open, and the Phillies leading 5-0 in the second inning, Pirates manager Derek Shelton ordered an intentional walk to get to Realmuto, who had already delivered the game’s biggest hit.
It happened again in the sixth, prompting boos from the 37,105 paying patrons.
“Especially against righties, it’s going to happen quite a bit,” Realmuto said. “Should be good.”
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Jean Segura reached base three times in his first three at-bats.
Not bad for a No. 8 hitters.
With the Phillies’ lineup at full capacity, Segura batted eighth for the second game in a row. He hasn’t hit that low in a lineup since 2015.
“It’s a pretty good feeling to have a guy of that caliber hitting eighth for you,” Thomson said. “What’s he hitting — .285 or something?” That’s pretty good. He said all along, ‘Hit me anywhere. I just want to play.’ He just wants to make the playoffs. He’s never been to the playoffs. He’s really hungry.
Phillies fans can relate.