PHILADELPHIA >> Gabe Kapler’s hope at the trade deadline was to improve his team in some way.
Sitting in the dugout Sunday afternoon, with Odubel Herrera hitting sixth and a hot Maikel Franco penciled in seventh, he felt like the front office had done that. And that was before Asdrubal Cabrera, the extra bat that made those other changes possible, stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth.
Cabrera bashed a two-run home run to the second deck in right, his second homer in as many days to send the Phillies to a 5-3 win over the Miami Marlins and a four-game sweep.
The Phillies (63-48) have won five straight games and hold a 11/2-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East.
“Excellent game all the way across the board,” Kapler said of Cabrera. “Obviously he made every play, made them look easy and then came up with an absolutely enormous hit for us. He has been a great leader already in the clubhouse. I think guys are following his lead. Pretty good demeanor, never too high or too low and just looks like a guy who has been there and done that and the big situation seems like it fits him very well.”
Cabrera hasn’t exactly set the world on fire since his arrival in a trade from the Mets. He didn’t homer in his first six games and is 6-for-32 at the plate (.188) while facing serious questions about his ability to handle the defensive load at shortstop, a position some had feared has passed him by.
But he made several stellar plays in the series with the Marlins at short and came through Sunday in a game where the Phillies had one single through five innings, exploded for three runs in the bottom of the sixth, then promptly saw their two best pitchers (Aaron Nola and Seranthony Dominguez) serve home run balls to cough up the lead.
It’s exactly the kind of situation where a veteran presence at the plate can steady a young team.
“What I see from this team, they fight every inning,” Cabrera said. “They battle. They never put their heads down, and that’s really good. We’re a team that we can win a game in one inning, and that’s what I like in this team.”
The homer came from the kind of professional at-bat you’d expect from Cabrera, who’s played 12 years in the bigs and made four postseason trips. After Nick Williams led off the eighth with a single and Carlos Santana flew out, Cabrera worked a 2-0 count and locked in on reliever Drew Steckenrider. He wanted a cutter from the lanky righty that he could drive.
He got it and made no mistake with it. Textbook.
“It was a situation where I was looking for one pitch,” he said. “He left it on the plate in the middle. And I put good contact on it.”
Cabrera can provide those key at-bats, like he did Saturday by jacking one of the Phillies’ four homers in an 8-3 win. But his presence has a domino effect for the rest of the order, typified by Franco (who singled twice and drove in a run) in the seven spot.
“Asdrubal being in the heart of our lineup definitely lengthens us,” Kapler said. “And that’s why (general manager) Matt (Klentak) went out and got us that piece. And it was really important because it does make our lineup deeper.”
“Especially with Frankie batting seventh, if we get guys on in the second and third inning or get guys on in the bottom of the lineup, we’ve got a threat to drive the ball out of the ballpark with one of our hottest hitters the last couple of months,” Rhys Hoskins said. “When you have that at the bottom of the lineup, we’re scoring runs all game. It makes it tough to pitch to us.”
The Phillies’ versatility creates those issues, too. Sunday, Kapler shuttled the hot Nick Williams up to the third spot. That dropped Odubel Herrera, who sat Saturday night so Roman Quinn could get a start, to sixth.
The mercurial Herrera responded with the biggest at-bat of the game before Cabrera’s, one that perfectly encapsulated his season. He fell behind 0-2 to lefty Adam Conley, waving through a pair of hard sliders. He fouled off a changeup, laid off a teasing slider in the dirt, then punched a 96 mile per hour fastball the other way through the shift to plate two runs and give the Phillies a 2-0 lead.
“My mentality, when the count was 0-2, was just to stay close to the plate and make contact with the ball,” Herrera said through an interpreter. “That’s all I was looking for.”
“I think we were just looking for him to grind there,” Kapler said. “We were looking for him to get back into that at-bat somehow. So he goes down 0-2, from the dugout we’re thinking this is where you shorten up a little bit, you spread out if you need to, you fight and you claw to get back in it. You want to just see one more pitch in that situation. … Just find a way to put the ball in play. That’s what he did. It was a huge at-bat in the game.”
The luxury of batting Herrera, an All-Star who can get hot and carry a team for stretches, as low as sixth is enabled by Cabrera. And the mentality that he brings to his new club only adds to his benefits on the field.
“I’m here to try to help the team to win,” Cabrera said. “I do my best to help the team, and when you do something like I did today to help them to win, it feels good.”
“All of a sudden our offense is looking like when we click, we’re going to give you something,” Kapler said. “So we feel strongly that we’re in a good spot.”