In partnership with NBC Sports Philadelphia
The final score had just been posted on the out-of-town scoreboard: Atlanta 4, New York 2. The Phillies were three outs away from their fifth loss in six games, three outs away from losing their grip on first place in the National League East, a spot they had held since July 6.
It's Aug. 3 now and the Phillies are still in first place. That fifth loss in six games never materialized Thursday night because, once again, this team that has been one of the surprises of baseball this season, summoned one last burst of life and walked off with a win that was dramatic, thrilling and representative of the resilience and character it has shown all season.
Maikel Franco capped a four-run ninth inning with a three-run homer as the Phillies rallied for a 5-2 win over the Miami Marlins that left every one of the 26,050 in attendance glad they came out to the ballpark on a night thick with humidity (see first take).
Franco celebrated his two-out, game-winning blast to left off Marlins closer Kyle Barraclough with quite possibly the biggest bat flip in Citizens Bank Park history and manager Gabe Kapler loved it.
"Emotion is good in baseball," the new-school skipper said. "Celebrations are great for baseball."
Kapler has enough old school in him to know character, chemistry, toughness - whatever you want to call that magic elixir - when he sees it. He sees lots of it in his team, which now has 60 wins, just six fewer than it had all of last season.
"The personality of our club continues to be - we know how to take a punch, we know how to get back up, and we know how to keep fighting," Kapler said. "The road trip to Cincinnati and losing the first game in Boston is a punch. And we came back out the following night in Boston and fought back. Tonight we got down 2-0 on a home run and their guy is cruising. That represents another punch. But we never stopped fighting. That continues to be the character of our club."
The victory, which allowed the Phillies to keep their half-game lead on Atlanta, started with Nick Pivetta allowing just two runs over six innings, keeping his team in the game, as they say, and relievers Austin Davis (two scoreless innings) and Tommy Hunter (one scoreless inning) keeping it close after Rhys Hoskins made it a one-run game with a homer in the sixth.
Hoskins led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk against Barraclough. The Phils then got a one-out infield hit against a shift from Carlos Santana and a walk from Asdrubal Cabrera to load the bases. Nick Williams tied the game on a soft ground out and the Marlins pitched to Franco with runners on second and third. Franco hit a 2-0 slider into the left-field seats. The ball took a long time coming down and when it did, Franco launched his bat.
"I got too excited," said Franco, still sweaty and euphoric 20 minutes after his game-winner. "I was just hoping the ball would go over the wall. I was just saying, ‘Get out, get out, get out.' Finally it did."
Hoskins, whose solo homer in the sixth and leadoff walk in the ninth were huge, threw out some hefty praise for Franco's homer.
"That's the biggest hit of the season, I think," the de facto team captain said. "It keeps us in first place. I think it's going to give us some momentum for the rest of the series. I think if you're able to do that to an opposing team in the first game, it kind of deflates them."
Franco embodies this team's resilience. Six weeks ago, his time with the Phillies appeared to be coming to a quick end. He was on the trading block and the Phillies were monitoring third basemen on the trade market. He had lost playing time to J.P. Crawford. Kapler even played Jesmuel Valentin ahead of Franco after Crawford suffered a broken hand. Franco sat for Valentin on June 22 in Washington. Before that game, Kapler, who is seldom publicly critical of his players, said Franco needed to make offensive and defensive "fixes" in his game.
Franco got a start on June 23. He had four hits in that game and has been on fire since, hitting .341 with nine homers, 20 RBIs and a 1.020 OPS in 34 games. He has played so well that the team couldn't find an available third baseman from outside the organization that was an upgrade on him. (Manny Machado would have played shortstop if the Phils had gotten him.) Franco is back to being a mainstay in the lineup and maybe he has a future here, after all.
"People are motivated by different things," Kapler said. "And Mikey turned a moment that wasn't necessarily what he wanted into real motivation. And since that day, he has been running every ball out. He has been preparing like a mad man. His process has been exceptional. He's made some swing changes. He's made some approach changes at the plate. He's among our best hitters. They flashed his July stats (.330, seven homers, 15 RBIs, .971 OPS) up there. They were sensational. And August is off to a good start for him as well."
Franco is one of the most upbeat personalities in the clubhouse. In tough times, he never got down. Now, he's prospering.
"I never give up, man," he said. "I'm doing everything I can do and preparing every single day. I'm taking nothing for granted, just trying to do my best for the team."