Phillies have the arms and big bats to make a second straight run at the World Series

Philadelphia Phillies' Orion Kerkering pitches during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the New York Mets, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Orion Kerkering sounded a bit like every Phillies fan last year, vowing to score World Series tickets at any price. That he was Philadelphia’s fifth-round draft pick didn’t matter much, Kerkering had to scrounge for tickets like any other desperate fanatic.

Good news, Kerkering knew a guy — his uncle — who knew a guy who could get tickets. Kerkering only had to buy his plane ticket and he would have seats with his girlfriend and his father at Game 3 of the World Series.

Kerkering rooted on the Phillies from the third row of the upper deck as they blasted five homers against Houston. While the Phillies trotted out four relievers in the win, Kerkering watched and wondered, could he one day — say, 2025, he figured — be the pitcher that gets the call from the ‘pen in the postseason?

Why wait?

Should the Phillies reach the World Series again, Kerkering can skip the secondary market and friends-of-friends for tickets and instead catch the game from the bullpen. The 22-year-old Kerkering blazed through four stops in the minor leagues this year before he was called up over the weekend, and the right-hander then struck out two in a scoreless inning in his MLB debut in Sunday’s win over the New York Mets.

Oh, and even with the late start, Kerkering is postseason eligible.

He should get there as long as the Phillies do, with the inevitable set to become a reality as early as with a win Tuesday against Pittsburgh. The Phillies are poised to earn the No. 1 wild card, giving them home field in the first round of the playoffs.

Bryce Harper, Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber are ready to mash again in October.

This time around, Trea Turner, Taijuan Walker, Cristopher Sánchez and Kerkering are along for the ride.

With 87 wins, their total already matched last season’s, before they knocked off St. Louis, Atlanta and San Diego on a wild ride to the World Series. Again, the 100-win NL East champion Braves are in the way and the Dodgers are closing in on reaching that win total. But remember last year, the Dodgers, Braves and Mets all hit 100 wins, yet it was the Phillies left standing in the National League, before losing in six games to Houston in the World Series.

Top to bottom, the Phillies are stronger, deeper everywhere, especially on the pitching staff. The Phillies gutted through the playoffs tossing out “openers” such as Bailey Falter and Noah Syndergaard to survive an inning or two. Now, Sanchez, owner of one of the best changeups in the game, has struck out 10 batters in a game twice this month, yet may not even get a chance to start in a short series.

“I’m not sure where we’d be without him,” manager Rob Thomson said. “This kid’s really something. I wouldn’t be afraid to use him in leverage situations out of the bullpen. If we get to October. We’re not there yet. For me, he’s not out of the question about starting a game.”

Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola are sure postseason starters, with Walker and Ranger Suárez in the mix, along with Sanchez.

Thomson was itching to see what he had in Kerkering and how Michael Lorenzen would fare in relief after he got knocked around in five starts following his no-hitter.

The early returns, pretty promising: Kerkering and Lorenzen (who earned the save) struck out three in two shutout innings in a 5-2 win over the Mets. Kerkering’s father, Todd, teared up from the Citizens Bank Park seats as he watched his son pitch.

Thomson envisions Kerkering — who went 4-1 with 14 saves and a 1.51 ERA across 49 relief appearances with four different minor league teams this season — as a high-leverage reliever.

The Phillies close the regular season with three against the Pirates and three more on the road against the Mets, giving Thomson a few more opportunities to see how Kerkering fits among a right-handed crop of relievers that include Craig Kimbrel, Seranthony Domínguez and Jeff Hoffman.

“The only thing with guys coming up here is, how they’re going to handle this environment,” Thomson said. “How they’re going to handle the third deck, 40,000 people in the stands, the passion of the city. He looked like he wasn’t even sweating.”

Phillies hitters are rounding into postseason form in the stretch run. Castellanos has seven homers since Sept. 12; Schwarber is one of only 13 players since 1920 with 120 walks/100 runs/100 RBIs/45 homers in a season; and Brandon Marsh needs one extra-base hit to give the Phillies eight players with at least 40 in a season for the first time in franchise history.

They can hit.

But the Phillies really want their starters to go deep, the six- or seven-inning quality starts needed until relievers can nail down wins.

As Kerkering packed for the big leagues, suddenly expected to become one of those shutdown relievers, his phone never stopped buzzing.

“It’s nonstop. I feel bad for not texting back right away,” he said.

Just wait until October, those calls will surely come from friends asking for tickets that Kerkering won’t have to try to buy anymore.


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