In another time, Phillies second baseman Scott Kingery would have tossed his helmet into the air to avoid the flurry of slaps to his head as he crossed home plate. He would have covered his ribs to protect himself from a pummeling.
But in the age of social distancing, Kingery pointed his fingers into the air, touched home plate and returned to the clubhouse without any bruises and his jersey still intact. He hit a three-run walk-off home run in the bottom of the 11th inning Friday night in Philadelphia's 7-4 victory against Atlanta at Citizens Bank Park. It was the first walk-off hit of Kingery’s career, capping a big win for the Phillies, who are trying to catch the Braves in the National League East with only 33 games to play.
“You know, I’m sure it would have been a lot of fun with fans and if we were able to actually get mobbed, but it was still pretty awesome and still pretty special,” Kingery said.
This is the final series between the Phillies and the Braves this season, which makes this series an important one. It is also important because a good showing this weekend could put pressure on the front office to make another move or two before Monday’s 4 p.m. ET Trade Deadline. Philadelphia acquired three relief pitchers on Aug. 21 to help its bullpen.
After Andrew McCutchen and Jean Segura each hit a two-run homer to give the Phillies a 4-1 lead, an error in the sixth and back-to-back home runs off left-hander Adam Morgan in the seventh tied the game. The bullpen recorded 15 outs the rest of the way without allowing a run, setting up Kingery’s moment.
Kingery entered Spring Training in February planning to be the everyday second baseman after being bounced around the infield and outfield in his first two seasons. But the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled Spring Training in March, and he had a difficult bout with the coronavirus in June. It pushed back his Summer Camp arrival in July by nine days, and he continued to experience effects from the virus, like shortness of breath and fatigue, but he made the Opening Day lineup. Kingery developed back tightness, which then led to a left shoulder issue.
Kingery struggled at the plate. The Phillies promoted Alec Bohm to play third base, Segura moved from third to second, and in turn, Kingery’s playing time dropped.
But Kingery showed signs in the past week of emerging from his slump. His average exit velocity (92.7 mph) and expected batting average (.342) from Aug. 21 through Thursday is markedly better than it was through Aug. 20, when his average exit velocity was 82.1 mph and his expected batting average was .201.
“I think anytime you start to square the ball up, it just kind of keeps going and gets your confidence back up,” Kingery said. “And regardless of what they’re throwing at you, you’ve got a chance to square it up. Just getting back into the rhythm of actually feeling what it’s like to square the ball up is helpful. Just waiting [and] letting the ball get to me is something big that I’ve been working on recently.”
Kingery entered the game as a pinch-runner in the 10th for Bohm, who started the inning as the team’s automatic runner at second base. Kingery is one of the fastest players in baseball; his sprint speed ranks in the 94th percentile, according to Statcast. After the Phillies did not score in the 10th, he made a nice tag on a throw from J.T. Realmuto at second base to catch Ender Inciarte stealing in the 11th for the first out. The Braves reviewed it, but the call stood.
“It was close,” Kingery said. “I didn’t think it would be overturned when he initially got called out.”
The Phillies had runners on second and third with two outs in the 11th when Kingery came up to bat. He took two cutters from Braves right-hander Mark Melancon for strikes to fall behind 0-2. Melancon threw another cutter, and Kingery ripped it into the first couple of rows in left field.
“That’s the great thing about this game,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “You always have a chance the next day to rewrite the script. He came up huge.”
Statcast clocked Kingery’s exit velocity on the drive at 100.5 mph.
“It feels really good,” he said. “I think it would feel good regardless. It’s a big win for us, especially at the beginning of the series. Hopefully, we can build some momentum off it.”