PHILADELPHIA — Ready to fulfill a lifelong dream, Orion Kerkering exited the bullpen door.
He jogged to the mound to make his MLB debut in the eighth inning in Sunday night’s 5-2 victory over the Mets at Citizens Bank Park, reducing the Phillies’ magic number to make the postseason to one. Kerkering said he felt some nerves, until he relaxed when he heard Phillies public address announcer Dan Baker say his name and the crowd cheer.
“I was just trying to have a blast with it,” he said.
Kerkering looked dominant in a scoreless inning. He struck out two, both on sliders.
“As advertised,” Mets manager Buck Showalter said.
Kerkering got promoted from Triple-A Lehigh Valley on Friday because the Phillies think he has the stuff to pitch in the postseason. If it happens, he will be the first Phillies pitcher to make his debut in September and pitch in the playoffs since Marty Bystrom in 1980.
Kerkering did not seem overwhelmed by the moment on Sunday. His family was, but understandably so. His father, Todd, was brought to tears as his son struck out two Mets batters.
Kerkering got to hug everybody afterward on the field.
“It was an awesome moment, it was a real moment,” he said. “I heard everybody was crying [on TV]. Just great for TV, so can’t complain.”
Kerkering’s slider looked good on TV, too. It could be one of the best breaking balls in baseball, which is why he has this opportunity in the first place. The pitch helped him move from Single-A Clearwater to High-A Jersey Shore to Double-A Reading to Triple-A Lehigh Valley to the big leagues in less than six months.
He threw a first-pitch slider to Mets catcher Omar Narváez for a called strike. He never looked back.
“You hear so much about it, I wanted to go ahead and see it,” Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “It was obviously a pretty elite pitch. I figured that was his most comfortable pitch to throw, so I wanted to go with that first to settle him in. It’s definitely a unique pitch.
“I don’t know if it’s classified as a sweeper or not because it’s so hard, but it has that type of movement, that type of horizontal break. It’s 88 mph. It’s one of the more unique sliders that I’ve seen in the game.”
Kerkering threw Narváez four more sliders before he grounded out to third baseman Alec Bohm. He then struck out Brett Baty swinging on a 1-2 slider, and Rafael Ortega swinging on an 0-2 slider to end the inning. Kerkering threw 12 pitches, including 10 sliders. His fastball touched 99.8 mph.
Phillies manager Rob Thomson was impressed. He said he hopes to put Kerkering in more high-leverage situations in the season’s final six games. They need to know if they can count on him.
“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, the passion of the city. And he looked like he wasn’t even sweating out there.”
“It’s the same baseball game,” he said. “Nine outs and everything.”
Whether to carry Kerkering isn’t the only pitching decision the Phillies must make before the postseason. Left-hander Cristopher Sánchez had another dominant performance on Sunday. He allowed two runs in seven innings. He struck out 10 batters for the second time in three starts.
Sánchez struck out all 10 batters on changeups. It is tied for the third-most strikeouts on changeups in a game since at least 2008. Luis Castillo (Aug. 5, 2019) and Alex Cobb (May 10, 2013) each struck out 11.
“I’m not sure where we’d be without him,” Thomson said.
So then how do the Phillies use him in the postseason?
“I wouldn’t be afraid to use him in leverage situations out of the bullpen,” Thomson said. “And, hey, look, if we get to October – we’re not there yet – for me he’s not out of the question about starting a game.”
Michael Lorenzen pitched a perfect ninth to earn the save. He is the 10th pitcher to throw an individual no-hitter and record a save in the same season since saves became an official stat in 1969, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“He was great,” Thomson said. “That was a good sign.”
Kerkering was an even better sign. If he fares well this week, he just might join right-handers Craig Kimbrel, Jeff Hoffman, Seranthony Domínguez and Lorenzen as potential high-leverage pitchers in October.
“We looked at his slider, it’s nasty,” Kimbrel said. “That’s the reason he’s here.”