Cody Asche knew he didn’t have a lot of options when the Braves’ B.J. Upton hit a chopper toward third base to lead off the ninth inning. His throw to first base was going to have to be quick -- really quick -- if he was going to keep the tying run off base.
So rather than charge after the ball, glove it, transfer it and make a running throw to first, Asche hesitated ever-so slightly, got his feet set and then charged after the chopper with his bare throwing hand. In one motion Asche snared it and threw to first to just nip the speedy Upton.
“You can’t teach or practice that play he made in the ninth,” interim manager Ryne Sandberg said about Asche’s play. “That was the only way he gets that runner. I think he’s really impressing every day and he keeps getting better.”
That first out of the ninth turned out to be pretty big play for the Phillies in the 2-1 victory over the Braves on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay). If Upton were to get on, he very well could have scored to tie it up on Freddie Freeman’s single a couple of hitters later.
Instead, Asche was the big hero for the Phillies with the glove and the bat as his two-out, two-run homer off lefty Mike Minor in the seventh proved to be the difference.
A game-winning homer, a great play in the field and a single is a pretty good night for the rookie Asche, who continues to impress the more he plays. After opening his first big-league stint by going 1 for 17 when that one hit was a funky swinging bunt that should have been an out, Asche has settled in nicely for the Phillies.
Since the rough start, Asche is 28 for 84 (.333) with four homers and 18 RBIs. More impressively, the lefty hitter has done very well against lefty pitchers, something he attributes to watching Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley up in the lineup. In eight games against left-handed pitchers, Asche is 7 for 16 with two extra-base hits and only two strikeouts.
“With [Asche] just spending some time here and feeling comfortable, that’s been his track record. He’s moved up the ladder quickly and each time he’s moved up he’s had some adjustment times and I think that’s the case here,” Sandberg said. “He was here a couple of weeks and he started finding his stroke when he relaxed and he let his natural abilities take over. He works very hard at the game -- all parts of the game -- and he’s a baseball player.”
Cliff Lee, whose gem (10 strikeouts, no walks, two hits in eight innings) was overshadowed by Asche’s heroics, agrees with Sandberg that the rookie has settled in after the initial period of nervousness when first joining the big-league club. In the time since, Lee says Asche clearly looks like a player who will be a big contributor in the future.
But Asche said he still gets nervous before games. It’s just that now he can compartmentalize and focus.
“I wouldn’t say the nerves have dissipated, I think you just learn how to control them,” Asche said. “You’re not putting pressure on yourself and trying to focus on situations where you can help the team win. If you do that, the rest takes care of itself.”
Asche’s homer came on the first pitch from Minor, who had dominated the Phillies’ hitters for the first 6 2/3 innings. Before Darin Ruf laced a two-out single to bring up Asche, Minor had allowed just two hits and a walk and no one had moved past first base.
One pitch and one swing changed all that.
“I had seen basically everything he had in his first two at-bats, so I was looking for something up in the zone to attack, whether a slider, curveball, fastball. Just something up to get my barrel on and drive in a run,” Asche said. “I definitely thought he didn’t want to fall behind in that situation. My first two at-bats he threw some good pitches on the first pitch.”
With the way Lee was pitching, Asche’s two-run shot held up. Lee threw 103 pitches in his eight innings with 18 first-pitch strikes to 27 hitters. He reached double digits in strikeouts for the third time this season and for the 26th time in his career.
Of course, Lee got some help from his defense, too, and not just from Asche. Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis, the Triple A double-play tandem, showed great range in chasing down fly balls in the outfield. Ruf made all the picks at first base, as well.
Maybe the kids are alright?
“That’s what it takes to be successful. You’ve got to have guys come up and do some things that no one really expects,” Lee said. “What Domonic (Brown) has done and Asche and several of our younger guys have stepped up and proven they can compete at this level and compete really well. It’s good to see and hopefully it continues through the end of the year.”
If anything, Sandberg says the young players are going to get a chance for the rest of the season. Friday night turned out to be a clean, crisp game, Sandberg said, exemplified by Asche’s barehanded grab in the ninth.
“I didn’t have that good first step there and had to make up for it by taking it bare-handed. [First baseman Darin] Ruf had a great stretch and made a great play at first, too,” Asche said. “I saw it off the bat and right away once I knew I wasn’t going to get it on the big hop, that I would have to do something to get rid of the ball quickly.”
The series continues Saturday night when Kyle Kendrick (10-12, 4.51) faces lefty Alex Wood (3-3, 3.15).