Aaron Altherr’s batting average was below .100, his playing time was in question, and doubt was beginning to form when he stepped into a batting cage last week with an assistant hitting coach who, at 28, is just one year older than him.
Pedro Guerrero fired fastball after fastball from a short distance, trying to help Altherr rediscover the timing that gives him such a smooth swing. The throws felt like they were coming out of a pitching machine, Altherr said Wednesday night after his three-run homer keyed a 5-3 win over Arizona. But the look of Guerrero’s arm provided better game simulation. It must have worked. Altherr, with six hits in his last 14 at-bats, appears to be emerging from a funk.
“We’ve seen the timing come together over the last couple of games,” manager Gabe Kapler said.
Altherr was at ease Wednesday night against Zack Greinke, one of baseball’s premier arms. He watched three straight pitches in the sixth inning and waited for the righthander to throw an offspeed pitch over the middle. The Phillies were down a run with two runners on in the sixth inning. It was a big spot. But Altherr never flinched, feeling as comfortable as he did in the batting cages with Guerrero.
Greinke came with an offspeed pitch — a slider — and Altherr pounced. He timed it perfectly and the swing was smooth. Altherr watched as his three-run homer sailed 421 feet to center.
“I think he smelled it,” Kapler said. “He understands the big moment. They were flashing his stats with runners in scoring position up on the scoreboard. I felt like the crowd really got into it when he came up in that moment. He was really sitting back and waiting for the ball to get deep. That’s a really important thing for a hitter to do there. See the ball a long time. We knew when it left the bat that it was screaming. We just weren’t sure if it was going to over the wall. Obviously, it cleared it by a significant margin. We were all pretty fired up in the dugout.”
Altherr had three hits on Sunday and drove in two runs Tuesday. Wednesday continued his resurgence. He flashed potential last season with a .856 OPS and suddenly looks like the hitter the Phillies expected him to be. The Phillies have won five of their last six. A victory on Thursday afternoon would give them their fourth series win in their last five. There was no knocking their win Wednesday as they toppled the team with baseball’s best record and its No. 1 pitcher.
“The timing is back. I’m a lot more relaxed at the plate now. I feel a lot better about myself,” Altherr said. “I’m just attacking strikes. I’m looking for a certain spot. If he happens to throw it there, I’m going to try and attack it. If I don’t get that pitch, I’ll lay off everything else and just wait for that pitch. Obviously, if he doesn’t throw it there then I’ll work the count more. It’s just a matter of being ready for my pitch to swing at.”
The Phillies needed Altherr’s hit Wednesday to bail out Jake Arrieta, who was dealing but was troubled by poor defense. The righthander gave up three runs, but just one was earned. He threw 107 pitches, the most this season by a Phillies pitcher, and struck out two with two walks and four hits. The Phillies made three errors behind Arrieta and two of them led to runs.
Arrieta loaded the bases without an out in the fourth but escaped with just one run scored. Jarrod Dyson, a speedster, laid down a bunt with no outs. Arrieta charged picked up the ball and tossed it to catcher Andrew Knapp as he lunged forward. The front of Arrieta’s jersey was covered in dirt, but it was worth it. A.J. Pollock was out at home. Arrieta then forced Jeff Mathis to hit a grounder to third where Maikel Franco made a nice grab, stepped on third base, and threw to first to complete the double play.
Arrieta, who was on the hook for the loss before Altherr came through, came back out for the seventh and retired the three batters he faced. Luis Garcia and Hector Neris handled the rest to give Arrieta his third win.
“He obviously hasn’t been up to his standards as of late, but he continues to grind away and prepare himself for moments like that,” Arrieta said of Altherr. “And he was able to put us ahead by two in a big game. Greinke was pretty good tonight. He made a few mistakes. We made him pay for it.”
Carlos Santana drove in a run in the first on a ground out and doubled to start the inning that Altherr punctuated. The Phillies hope he, too, can snap a season-long slump. Cesar Hernandez had three hits and scored two runs. Odubel Herrera, who reached base for the 25th straight game, added a run with a sacrifice fly in the third. That would be it for the Phillies until Altherr came to the plate in the sixth.
His three-run homer was reminiscent of the grand slam he hit last season off Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw. That homer also came off a slider. But that was Game No. 150 for the team that then held baseball’s worst record. It was a nice September highlight, something to cling to during the winter. This felt different. Altherr held his finger to the sky as he rounded first base. This homer to seemed to carry a bit more meaning for a team that is trying to compete and a player who is trying to break out.
“Big spots in games, we need some runs, I feel like my focus gets even sharper in those moments,” Altherr said. “I feel like I handle myself pretty well in those.”