By now, four seasons in, you surely have come to accept being equal parts impressed and irritated by Odubel Herrera. It’s the contract that you, loyal Phillies fan, have signed with your team’s wildly talented, certifiably enigmatic center fielder.
And sometimes, you must admit, Odubel being Odubel really pays off.
Take the first inning Friday night. Staked to a three-run lead, Atlanta Braves starter Julio Teheran walked the first two batters on pitches that missed so badly that neither Cesar Hernandez nor Carlos Santana considered taking the bat off his shoulder. The Phillies, who have seen more pitches per plate appearance than any team in the majors so far this season, were plodding to another rally, and Teheran was making it easy.
So, naturally, Herrera swung at the first pitch.
Pure genius. Herrera lined Teheran’s juicy change-up into the right-field bleachers, the first of his two home runs in the Phillies’ series-opening 7-3 victory before an announced crowd of 27,076 on another chilly night at Citizens Bank Park.
Odubel being Odubel, right?
“I know he’s a really good pitcher, he has really good control,” Herrera said, through a team translator, after his first career multi-homer game. “Today he was struggling. I knew he was going to try to put it over the plate, so I wanted to make contact. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Herrera took righthander Aaron Nola off the hook for allowing three first-inning runs, then broke a 3-3 tie with a solo homer in the sixth inning against Braves reliever Max Fried, who entered in the fourth inning after Teheran exited with upper-back tightness.
But Nola earned this win, too. Facing the Braves for the third time in four weeks, he gave up as many runs in the first inning as he had in his previous two starts against them.
By the second inning, though, Nola and catcher Jorge Alfaro realized the change-up, typically Nola’s third-best pitch, was particularly sharp. So, Nola threw more change-ups than usual and held the Braves scoreless for the next six innings.
“I was throwing it to guys and there were swings-and-misses,” Nola said. “I was seeing that. I was seeing foul balls with it. I just kept throwing it.”
While we’re at it, pass some credit to manager Gabe Kapler. The same skipper who hooked Nola after only 68 pitches on opening day in Atlanta huddled on the mound with his emerging ace and decided to leave him in the game to face leadoff-hitting Ender Inciarte a fourth time with two on, two out and the pitch count approaching 100 in the seventh inning.
“I was pretty confident that I was going to get the vibe that he was prepared to handle that batter,” said Kapler, who had “no doubt in my mind” that keeping Nola in the game would be the right move. “He looked the same way he looks at his locker two days before his start. Totally prepared, totally confident, poised, strong.”
Said Nola: “I kind of knew he wasn’t going to take me out.”
Speaking of early-season faux pas against the Braves, Herrera earned a large dose of redemption, too.
On April 16, Herrera neglected to slide into second base while trying to stretch a double. Braves right fielder Nick Markakis made a strong throw, Herrera got tagged out, and the Phillies wound up losing 2-1.
As with so many of Herrera’s antics, the only way to explain it was to co-opt a phrase that once applied to the great Manny Ramirez. It was Odubel being Odubel.
So, here was Herrera, shrugging off Teheran’s wildness to jump on a first pitch — and, in the process, reaching base in his 27th consecutive game. In the sixth inning, he guessed fastball but slowed his bat when Fried threw him a third consecutive curve and sent another souvenir into the right-field seats.
“I really thought he was going to throw me a fastball because it had been two breaking balls already,” Herrera said. “But it’s such a slow breaking ball that I had time to adjust.”
Said Kapler: “It’s really fascinating to watch him swing at a pitch that he might not be able to drive and then that pitcher goes right back to that same location and he’s right on it. He makes adjustments with the barrel about as good as anybody as I’ve seen.”
Kapler heard plenty about Herrera’s streakiness at the plate — and likely his general quirkiness, too — in previous years. But save for Rhys Hoskins, Herrera has been as consistent as any Phillies hitter this month.
“Odubel has been locked in all year at the plate,” Kapler said. “And when I say locked in, I don’t mean hot, I don’t mean like swinging the bat well. I mean locked in and focused and prepared and ready. I don’t think there’s been a pitch where we’ve looked at him where we said, ‘I’m not sure he’s into this right now.’ No, he’s been laser-sharp focused all year long.”
To Kapler, that’s Odubel being Odubel.