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September 18, 2017

Most important win of 2017? Rookie-laden Phillies lineup beats baseball's best pitcher, team

The schedule said the mighty Los Angeles Dodgers were in town and the game notes said three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw was on tap to pitch, so manager Pete Mackanin continued to operate with the best intentions of the Phillies development in mind: he played the kids.

Mackanin penciled the names of four rookies into his starting lineup (five, if you include pitcher Nick Pivetta).

“You want to play in the big leagues, let's play in the big leagues,” the second-year manager said.

And so second half, middle of the lineup regulars Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins hit third and fourth, respectively, and ballyhooed top prospects J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro anchored the bottom third of the batting order.

The Phillies looked in trouble early – early as in watching the game’s first hitter, Chris Taylor, hit an inside-the-park home run only to catch his breath in time to see the next batter, Justin Turner, deposit a ball into the left-field seats. And Kershaw, known universally as the best pitcher on the planet, held the Phils to a pair of singles in the game’s first five innings.

Well, maybe it’s a good thing Hoskins allegedly isn’t from this planet because it was going to take something otherworldly to upset the Dodgers flow on the night Chase Utley returned to Citizens Bank Park for the first time in 2017.

A sixth inning that began with a walk by pinch-hitter Ty Kelly and a flare single by Freddy Galvis grew steam when Hoskins battled Kershaw for seven pitches to work a walk.

Three pitches later, the Phillies two-run deficit was turned into a two-run lead with one Aaron Altherr swing, a swing that sent the ball 418-feet away and into the second tier of left field seats at Citizens Bank Park for the first grand slam ever hit of the great Clayton Kershaw.

Three innings later, Hector Neris recovered from a solo home run and buried his Dodger Stadium demons from April and the Phillies held on to a 4-3 victory, arguably the young team's most important of the season.

“Boy that was fun,” Mackanin said. “Anytime you beat Kershaw it’s really nice to see. … Everyone was up for the game, all the young guys especially wanted to get a look at Kershaw and get to hit off of him. Hoskins had some big at-bats, and that was a big at-bat to walk right there. Any time a guy walks to load the bases and the next guy hits a grand slam I’m real happy about it.”

The Phillies have a winning record in the last month: they’re 16-14 since August 19. (Coincidentally, that 30-game stretch also includes allowing four inside-the-park home runs in the last 29 games).

The Phillies also have collected more wins in the second half (30-33) than they had in the first half (29-58) in 21 fewer games.

Baby steps.

It’s surely no coincidence that the second half has included Williams for the duration, Hoskins for the last six weeks, and contributions from Crawford (a defensive gem Monday at third base) and Alfaro (a two-run home run Saturday, following a Crawford walk, too).

“It's huge,” Altherr said what a win like Monday’s could do for the morale of a young, promising, but mostly inexperienced team. “We have a lot of talent on this team. I feel like we can play with anybody and get a win. It’s just a matter of things coming together. Lately, they have been. It's definitely a bright future looking forward.”

Altherr is a relatively young player, too. The 26-year-old had played in just 192 major league games over the last four years. He’d never faced Kershaw.

He put the ball in play in his first two at-bats against the 2014 National League MVP (a groundout and a lineout) but knew his third trip was crucial. A hit could continue a rally; an out could deflate the home dugout and spur Kershaw and the Dodgers to their 97th win of the season.

“You try to make it just another game, but deep down you know it’s really not because of how good he is and how good he's been over the years,” Altherr said. “He's a future Hall of Famer. So it's definitely awesome to be able to play against a guy like that.”

The 1-1 pitch came in about belt high. If it was a slider, it didn’t slide much.

“Actually, to be honest, I thought it was a fastball when I hit it,” Altherr said. “His fastball and his slider kind of look the same. It was pretty difficult to tell. I was just looking in a certain zone. The ball was heading there, so I was able to put a good swing on it.”

A swing that did something no one had ever done against Clayton Kershaw, who has pitched int he big leagues for 10 years and entered Monday with 1,917 career innings.

“That’s obviously pretty special to be the first one to do that,” Alther said. “I definitely don't take it for granted. He's obviously a really good pitcher. I just thank God I was able to get a pitch to hit.”

The hearty crowd of 16,690 exploded as Kershaw’s 94th pitch of the night was turned into a souvenir. And Pivetta, who had settled down nicely after the back-to-back home runs to begin the game, was credited with what was just his second win since August 1.

“I wouldn't have gotten that win if Altherr hadn't hit that grand slam and it wouldn't even have started if Ty didn't get that walk and Freddy didn't get that hit and we didn't get another walk, so the guys putting up good (at-bats) in that situation was really nice to see,” Pivetta said. “This win goes out to the team around me and not just me. I mean, yes, I put in five shutout innings after that but just having those guys pick me up at the end, I think that's what really contributed to this win.”

A team win, bolstered by a rookie-laden lineup against the best pitcher and best team in baseball. The Phillies rebuild has been in second gear for the last month in South Philly and the fun has returned to Citizens Bank Park, too.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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