HOUSTON – For the Philadelphia Phillies, it is past the point of amazement and into the realm of expectation.
No, J.T. Realmuto will not need a day off at catcher. (Nobody squats behind the plate more often).
Yes, he is more agile, more athletic, speedier than almost anyone else on a baseball field (His maintenance program to remain so borders on legendary).
And this month, in his first taste of postseason baseball, as they advance each round and the stakes get higher, it is Realmuto they can count on more than almost anyone to come through when it matters most.
Friday night, in Game 1 of the World Series, Realmuto’s penchant for greatness made history.
After his vicious swing on Houston Astros right-hander Luis Garcia’s full-count, 98-mph sinker sent the baseball toward right field leading off the 10th inning, Realmuto would find himself shoulder to shoulder with Carlton Fisk. Yet instead of Fisk waving the ball fair, and off the Fenway Park foul pole to win Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, the thought was different in Realmuto’s mind and in his dugout.
“We all were yelling, ‘Get up,’” recalls Kyle Schwarber, “but I’m pretty sure we thought it was out.”
And as the ball settled into the right field seats, Realmuto became the first catcher to homer in an extra-inning game since Fisk’s unforgettable walkoff.
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Fisk is in the Hall of Fame, a place Realmuto, a three-time All-Star at 31, still has work to do to reach. But after his two-run double capped a five-run comeback in the fifth, and his 10th-inning homer provided the winning margin in a 6-5 victory, Realmuto does have one advantage over the original Pudge:
His club suddenly, shockingly, has the upper hand to win this World Series, the kind of history Realmuto is growing accustomed to making.
“He’s got a lot of that.,” says first baseman Rhys Hoskins. “First catcher to….First catcher since….
“These are baseball legends, right? It’s a pleasure to play with the guy. I would bet at the end of his career, just what he’s able to do on the field, he’ll be one of them.”
Friday was just the latest step, a moment Realmuto said he did envision “about 7,000 at-bats” as a child growing up in Oklahoma, his game-winning Series homer coming after a season in which he hit 22 home runs and stole 21 bases (the “other” Pudge, Rodriguez, in 1999, is the only other catcher to do that).
His basepath friskiness comes in spite of the fact he caught more innings (1,131) than any catcher. His clutch home run came in spite of the fact he took a jarring foul ball off the mask, shrugging off the jaw pain he said would “probably not make it easy for me to eat dinner tonight.”
Realmuto is in his first postseason and has 12 hits in 11 games, a resume that includes this game-winning homer, an inside-the-park thriller in the NLDS and an insurance blast in the NLCS.
He hasn’t taken a day off behind the plate since Sept. 8, has caught every inning this postseason and is perhaps why the phrase “rock” was inserted into the athletic lexicon.
“I mean, there's really no other way to say this other than he's just the real deal,” says outfielder Nick Castellanos, whose diving catch to end the ninth inning enabled Realmuto’s heroics an inning later. “I mean, I haven't been playing baseball very long, but long enough to know that to be able to catch as much as he does and to be able to perform the way he does and to steal bases and to take the extra base, even to hit an inside the park home run as a catcher, it's really, really impressive and he's a hell of an athlete.”
The former high school dual threat quarterback could probably slide to any position up the middle save shortstop. While the Phillies built their new empire around $330 million free agent Bryce Harper, it is Harper who’s long had eyes for Realmuto, whom the Phillies acquired in trade from Miami and then signed to a $115 million extension.
The biggest payoff came in Game 1.
Realmuto capped a startling five-run comeback off Justin Verlander with a long two-run double to the crevice in Minute Maid Park’s left field, scoring Schwarber and Brandon Marsh to make it a 5-5 game in the top of the fifth. While Realmuto is intense and can be emotional, he is by nature a fairly taciturn dude on a roster full of them.
That changed a bit when he reached second base.
“That was probably the most emotion I've showed on a baseball field in a long time,” he says. “It's honestly not something that I plan or that I even expected to do. But there's just such so much emotion in these games, we're having so much fun together that we can feel the comeback building when we score a run, score two runs.
“And in the dugout we're talking, like, ‘Guys we got this.’ Just keep putting good at-bats, keep putting good at-bats. So once I hit that double and scored the tying run there was just so much emotion it was just hard for me to keep in.”
The score would remain 5-5 until Realmuto batted in the fifth. As the ball took flight, so too did a stream of joyous expletives, Hoskins said, from the Philly dugout. It set the stage for David Robertson to close out the game with a tense 10th inning, a save made possible by the man catching him.
“He’s been incredible,” says Robertson. “He’s been a rock for us in the lineup and behind the dish he’s been putting the right fingers down when we need them.
“He’s like the quarterback of our team right now.”
Afterward, this quarterback met up with the training staff to go through his postgame routine, three sets of three exercises, designed to keep the body activated, perhaps capped by an ice bath or therapy. He’s been going full tilt, no break in sight for nearly two months.
Suddenly, it’s down to three more wins, no more than six more games. Sleep can wait.
“I'm honestly not sure how my body is going to respond until the season is over,” says Realmuto, “because right now I'm running on so much adrenaline that I feel pretty great every night.”
Never better than Friday, surely.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: J.T. Realmuto leads Phillies comeback vs. Astros in World Series Game 1