J.P. Crawford slapped his hands Monday night almost as soon as his feet left the batter’s box. He rounded first base, saw the go-ahead run had scored in a 6-1 win over the Reds, and slapped them again. He pounded fists with first-base coach Jose Flores and the coach wrapped his hands around Crawford’s shoulder.
This was more than just a go-ahead single to secure a series win and get the Phillies to .500. This, the Phillies hope, is a breakthrough for a player who could be a lineup catalyst. Crawford downplayed his struggles when he started the season in a wicked slump. But there was no downplaying this. It was obvious that this — a two-out single in the seventh to bring home Nick Williams — brought relief. The emotion was there. Crawford, who entered the at-bat 0 for his last 18, had finally come through.
“Really cool to see him come up with a huge knock for us,” manager Gabe Kapler said.
The hit provided the run the Phillies needed for Aaron Nola, who pitched brilliantly but seemed to be headed for a no-decision. The righthander allowed just one run and threw 103 pitches while becoming the first Phillies pitcher this season to log eight innings. Nola struck out six, walked three, and allowed three hits. His curveball was nasty and his fastball command was on-point. Nola looked like the top-of-the-rotation arm that the Phillies hope he is. And he deserved to have his first win.
Nola seemed to get better as the game went on. Crawford’s hit ensured that he would go out for the eighth inning. He needed just 15 pitches to retire the three batters he faced in the eighth. Nola pitched last week in New York without a feel for his curveball, and Nola said afterward that the pitch stunk. A start later and his trademark pitch was back.
“Just to trust it more was my plan tonight,” Nola said. “Just don’t really think about trying to place it.”
Crawford gave Nola the lead and Scott Kingery provided some insurance. He hit a two-out grand slam in the eighth for his second homer in two nights. Tanner Rainey, in his major-league debut, snuck a slider past Kingery for strike one and then tried to come back with another. No chance. Kingery lofted the slam to left field. Hoby Milner protected the five-run lead with a 1-2-3 ninth.
“It’s unbelievable,” Kapler said of Kingery. “Biggest moment, big stage, looking for a pitch to drive down in the zone. He’s really good at that and got on a slider and there we go. Pretty special.”
The Phillies were held hitless until the sixth inning when Cesar Hernandez laced a one-out single to right. Homer Bailey dueled with Nola as the Reds righthander struck out seven in six innings without allowing a walk. But the Phillies finally cracked him. Hernandez stole second and Odubel Herrera followed with a two-out double to drive him in, tying the game at 1. The Phillies, no longer hitless, had their first run.
Crawford was out of Monday’s lineup to work on things, Kapler said. And Crawford spent most of the afternoon on Monday and Tuesday in the team’s batting cage under Citizens Bank Park. Hitting coach John Mallee worked him through a drill, using a net to obstruct his swing path and forcing Crawford to swing straight away. Crawford wanted to keep his hands close to his body and stay inside the ball when he hit. He had watched enough video to realize he was trailing off on his swings, causing him to have weak contact whenever he connected.
Who was the first to point that out to him?
“Everyone,” Crawford said with a laugh as his struggles were so obvious.
His work produced a quick return. He lined out sharply in the third inning, squaring a ball to the left-center gap for an out. It was the hardest-hit ball he had all season. The out, Crawford said, was a “confidence booster.” He came to the plate in the seventh hitless in his first two at-bats and with just one hit in his first 25 at-bats of the season. But that line out provided the confidence he needed. Crawford watched two sinkers fall for strikes and did not buckle. Lauded for his plate discipline even when he was slumping, Crawford laid off two pitches to work the count even. Another sinker came and Crawford did not miss. He finally got his hit and Nola would get his win.
“J.P. had the biggest hit of the night and that’s kind of what did it for us. It got the dugout all fired up and helped us close out that game,” Kingery said. “He didn’t take his past nine games or however many at-bats he had, he didn’t take those at-bats to that AB. That’s something that’s hard to do. He just focused on that AB and put a good swing on that pitch and delivered for us in the clutch.”
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