PHOENIX — Eight days before Craig Kimbrel made his big-league debut, in May of 2010, a boy in Chicago celebrated his 10th birthday. Alek Thomas grew up around baseball. His father, Allen, spent two decades on the strength and conditioning staff of the Chicago White Sox. Alek dodged champagne when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005. As Kimbrel emerged as a dominating force, perhaps the best reliever his generation, Thomas was growing bigger and faster and stronger, talented enough to star in three sports in high school, skilled enough to merit a second-round selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2018 draft.
Before the eighth inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, Kimbrel and Thomas had only crossed paths three times. Neither man will ever forget their fourth encounter, when Thomas launched a game-tying home run off Kimbrel to put the Diamondbacks in position to secure a rollicking 6-5 victory to even this series at 2-2. Thomas clobbered a fastball for a two-run dinger as Kimbrel melted down for the second game in a row. Later in the inning, rookie catcher Gabriel Moreno supplied the go-ahead single off Phillies relief ace Jose Alvarado.
GAME 4 OF THE #NLCS IS ALL TIED UP 💣
Alek Thomas levels the score with a two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) October 21, 2023
The rally meant an unlikely comeback for the Diamondbacks, both in this game and in this series. Game 5 will feature a rematch of Game 1 starters: Zac Gallen for Arizona, Zack Wheeler for Philadelphia. In the first two games, both at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies appeared to be toying with their guests, capable of demolishing fastballs with ease. During these past two days at Chase Field, Arizona has demonstrated the mettle and talent that allowed them to upend the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers in the previous two rounds. On Friday, they won a game in which they did not even utilize a starting pitcher.
After a sterling performance by Brandon Pfaadt kept Arizona afloat in Game 3, the club navigated a bullpen game Friday. The strategy worked for the first few innings, before the Phillies dented the untested arms. Kyle Schwarber woke up his teammates with a fourth-inning homer. Brandon Marsh supplied a game-tying double in the fifth. Johan Rojas tripled and scored on Trea Turner’s sacrifice fly in the seventh.
The three-run Phillies lead took a hit in the seventh, as Philadelphia rookie Orion Kerkering lost his command and permitted a run. In the eighth, the Diamondbacks ransacked Kimbrel. A leadoff double by outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. set the stage for Thomas. After his homer splashed into the right-field pool, Ketel Marte singled and Kimbrel hit Corbin Carroll with a pitch. Moreno finished the job — atoning for his inability to corral a play at the plate in the sixth that led to a pair of Phillies runs.
The Diamondbacks bucket brigade walked toward the left-field bullpen a few minutes before the first pitch Friday. A dearth of viable starting pitchers left Arizona manager Torey Lovullo to press buttons all evening. The first reliever up was Joe Mantiply, an All-Star in 2022 who posted a 4.62 ERA in 2023 and surrendered three runs in Game 2. Mantiply yielded a one-out single to Turner, but recovered to nab Turner trying to steal second base.
Philadelphia opted for Cristopher Sánchez, a left-handed pitcher making his postseason debut. He had not pitched since Sept. 30. He logged two innings in a simulated game after the Phillies eliminated the Braves in the National League Division Series. “As much as you don’t like to think that there would be rust,” Wheeler said before the game, “there probably is going to be rust.”
The fogginess appeared to show up for Sánchez in the second inning. With one out and Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker at first, Gurriel chipped a grounder to the mound. Sánchez scooped the baseball and loped toward first, forgoing the chance at a double play. Walker took third base when an errant changeup squirted past catcher J.T. Realmuto for a passed ball. Sánchez walked veteran designated hitter Evan Longoria. The crowd reached full froth when third baseman Emmanuel Rivera stung a 92-mph sinker for an RBI single.
Sánchez would not remain in the game for much longer. The third inning began with an infield single by Marte. Sánchez gifted Marte an additional 90 feet with a wild pitch. A groundout by rookie outfielder Carroll advanced Marte to third and spelled the end of Sánchez’s outing. Philadelphia manager Rob Thomson asked reliever Jeff Hoffman to strand Marte. Hoffman could not oblige. Moreno stroked an opposite-field single to plate Marte and give his club a 2-0 lead.
Schwarber cut into the deficit in the top of the fourth. He was facing Kyle Nelson, the third Diamondbacks reliever to appear. Nelson made the mistake of directing a fastball down the middle. Schwarber deposited the baseball beyond the right-field fence for his fourth homer of the series.
The Phillies evened the game in the fifth. A one-out single by J.T. Realmuto put a blemish on the line of righty reliever Miguel Castro. With two outs, Lovullo entrusted rookie left-hander Andrew Saalfrank. The rookie fell behind outfielder Marsh, who bashed a 2-1 fastball off the center-field wall for a game-tying double.
The Arizona relievers lost their grip in the sixth. Saalfrank stared down the top of the Phillies lineup. And then he walked the bases loaded. Schwarber, Turner and Bryce Harper all took free passes. Lovullo yanked Saalfrank for right-hander Ryan Thompson. The Diamondbacks employ Thompson because he can generate groundballs. But Thompson cannot control what happens after the ball hits the ground. Alec Bohm pounded a 91-mph sinker into the grass. Rivera scooped it and skipped the throw. Two runs scored, and the Phillies claimed a two-run lead.
(Photo: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)