LOS ANGELES -- The Phillies used an opener for the first time Saturday night at Dodger Stadium and it worked well enough that they almost certainly will use one again. In fact, they could use one again Sunday.
Their use of left-hander José Álvarez as the opener, plus the combined efforts of the pitchers that followed him, put Bryce Harper in position to crush a two-run, opposite-field home run in the eighth inning to tie the game. But Dodgers catcher Will Smith spoiled Harper’s heroics when he hit a full-count splitter from Héctor Neris just over the left-field wall with one out in the ninth inning to send the Phillies home on a 4-3 walk-off loss.
It was the first homer of Smith’s career. It was the eighth hit, sixth run and fourth home run Neris has allowed in one combined inning in his last three appearances at Dodger Stadium over the past three years.
“This is a really disappointing loss,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said.
Disappointing because the opener strategy worked against a powerful Dodgers offense.
Disappointing because Harper hit a clutch bomb.
Disappointing because Neris’ splitter to Smith appeared to be down in the strike zone.
“I did my job and he did his job, you know?” Neris said. “I used my pitch and he hit it. It was a great pitch and he got it. Great contact.”
“I can’t wait to put him back out there in the toughest spot,” Kapler said. “He has been nails for us for almost a full calendar year and that’s a pretty good track record of success.”
Dodger Stadium has become a house of horrors for Neris. He allowed three consecutive home runs in the ninth inning in a 6-5 loss to the Dodgers on April 29, 2017. The Phillies had a three-run lead entering the ninth that night, when Neris allowed homers to Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner to tie the game.
Neris allowed three hits and one run in one-third of an inning on May 29, 2018.
“It’s something that can happen sometimes, but it’s past,” Neris said. “Tomorrow I will be fighting. I get it tomorrow.”
Will the Dodgers get Alvarez again Sunday? Kapler said right-hander Nick Pivetta remains Sunday’s starter, although he said “everything is on the table.”
“My thought process is that Alvarez has pitched two innings in the past and come back and pitched an inning the following day, so I would say everything is on the table,” he said.
Alvarez pitched two scoreless innings to start the game. The Phillies chose him because they wanted to see how the Dodgers set their lineup in an effort to maintain some flexibility later in the game and perhaps move the Dodgers’ batters out of their comfort zone. Phillies right-hander Juan Nicasio retired the only batter he faced in the third inning, then left-hander Cole Irvin, who is a starter, entered the game.
Irvin allowed two runs in 3 2/3 innings, but one of those runs would not have scored had Scott Kingery, who is learning to play center field, been able to catch Max Muncy’s line drive with one out in the third. Kingery got a late break on the ball.
“I was planning on diving but when I saw it on its way down I didn’t think I had a shot,” Kingery said.
Vince Velasquez allowed one unearned run in the seventh when he misfired on a pickoff attempt at second base.
“Vince, I think him and [shortstop Jean] Segura executed that play well minus an accurate throw,” Kapler said. “An accurate throw and it’s a pickoff and Vince knows that and Segura did everything in his power to make that play. The ball that dropped in front of Kingery, one similar dropped in front of [Dodgers center fielder] Alex Verdugo. Is it a play that can be made? Yes. Is it a play that should be made? I’m not sure.”
The Phillies must win Sunday to avoid a series sweep. They entered this series with the second-best record in the National League. The Dodgers had the best.
“We are really proud of the work those guys did,” Kapler said. “They executed the game plan to near perfection and Neris has been a stud and Smith put a good swing on a split at the bottom of the zone and that happens sometimes.”