PHILADELPHIA -- A likely Hall of Fame closer on the mound. The front-runner for the National League Most Valuable Player Award at the plate. Bases loaded. Two outs. A trip to the NL Championship Series on the line for one team. A historic regular season hanging in the balance for the other.
Aside from a postseason tune-up in a meaningless Sept. 30 game against the Mets, Kimbrel hadn't pitched as early as the seventh inning since May 1. He had also entered the game with two runners on base after having dealt with only one inherited baserunner all season -- and that was on April 12 in the 10th inning against the Marlins.
But with the Phils clinging to a two-run lead, manager Rob Thomson called on Kimbrel with two on and two outs in the seventh. Kimbrel walked Travis d’Arnaud to load the bases, setting the stage for his showdown with Acuña.
After working the count to 2-2, Acuña ripped the seventh pitch of the at-bat toward the left-center-field gap.
The ball came off his bat at 97.5 mph and traveled a Statcast-projected 379 feet. It had a hit probability of 47 percent, per Statcast -- but center fielder Johan Rojas had other plans. The Phillies' rookie sensation made a leaping catch to rob Acuña of what would have been at least a game-tying or potentially go-ahead hit.
"When he hit it, I thought, 'Man ... ,'" Braves manager Brian Snitker said. "When I saw the outfielder kind of holding up a little bit, I thought, 'Maybe this ball is going to be off the wall.' I was hoping."
Rojas temporarily dashed that hope with just the latest highlight-reel catch in what has been a stellar defensive campaign for the 23-year-old.
But what about the final six outs?
After all, the Phillies had already used high-leverage relievers José Alvarado and Seranthony Domínguez, in addition to Kimbrel.
Domínguez took over for starter Ranger Suárez to begin the sixth. The right-handed reliever recorded two quick outs, but after a two-out single by Austin Riley, Thomson went to the left-handed Alvarado against fellow lefty Matt Olson.
Olson hit an MLB-best 54 homers in the regular season, but only 10 came against lefties -- and his OPS against southpaws was nearly 300 points lower (.799 vs. LHP, 1.061 vs. RHP). Alvarado induced a routine flyout to end the frame.
"When we had the lead and we were in those parts of their lineup, I felt like that was the time to go to the Alvarados and the Kimbrels,” Thomson said. “And then we'll figure it out at the end."
Alvarado returned for the seventh and notched two quick outs before issuing back-to-back walks, forcing Thomson to call on Kimbrel -- one of his closers replacing the other -- in just the seventh inning. Similar to Domínguez and Alvarado, Kimbrel retired the first two batters after returning to the mound in the eighth before Thomson turned to another left-hander in Gregory Soto to face Olson. Soto forced Olson to ground out to end the frame.
Prior to the ninth, bullpen coach David Lundquist answered the phone one more time.
"You know he already used Alvy and Craig, so you're just waiting," said reliever-turned-starter-turned-reliever Matt Strahm. "Phone rang, Lundy says, 'Strahm, get hot,' and there I go."
Still, Soto got the first crack at the ninth inning, but he allowed back-to-back singles to start the frame.
The 31-year-old lefty began the year in the rotation -- and was arguably the Phillies' best starter for the opening month. But in an effort to manage his workload, they shifted him to the bullpen in early May.
Strahm has since been called on in just about every situation imaginable, but nothing quite like his latest task: Escape a two-on, no-out jam to send the Phillies to the NLCS. After retiring Kevin Pillar and Eddie Rosario on just three pitches, Strahm struck out pinch-hitter Vaughn Grissom to seal his first career postseason save -- and just his seventh overall, including the regular season.
It also put the finishing touches on four scoreless innings from five Philadelphia relievers, who worked around a combined two hits and four walks while striking out two.
"So it was a little unorthodox, but we got it done,” Thomson said. "Strahm did an unbelievable job.”
"This is stuff we dream of as little kids," Strahm added.
Of course, Strahm and the Phillies still have bigger dreams to pursue over the next couple of weeks. But it's safe to say he’ll be ready any time that bullpen phone rings.
"That's definitely the No. 1 highlight for me -- so far," Strahm said. "Hopefully, in these next couple weeks, we can make some more. But I'll take that ball whenever it's given to me."