PHILADELPHIA — If he merely played baseball like a crash-test dummy, banging into outfield walls with utter disregard for his body in pursuit of fly balls, Kevin Pillar would still be popular among teammates and fans. But it wouldn’t be enough to keep him on a major-league roster.
Pillar has been with the Braves all season because when called upon he’s produced, including in big situations like the 10th inning of Monday’s doubleheader opener against the Phillies. He led off the inning with a line-drive pinch-hit single that drove in the go-ahead run in a 10-8 victory.
“He hasn’t had an at-bat in 10 days or more, then he hits a rocket,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said of Pillar, who has platooned with left fielder Eddie Rosario, but last played on Aug. 30. “He’s a pro’s pro. He understands his role. He’s always ready, he’s on the top step all the time, he’s engaged in the game. Most of the time, he knows before I do that I’m gonna pinch-hit him, and he’s up the steps with his helmet on. I just can’t say enough about the man.”
Matt Olson had two home runs off Michael Lorenzen in the nightcap. But Kyle Wright gave up four runs in the first inning of his first start after a 3 1/2-month stint on the injured list, and the Phillies led throughout in their 7-5 win. Olson’s four RBIs and a Michael Harris seventh-inning solo homer accounted for all of the Braves’ offense.
“I would say the only positive is that I got back out there,” said Wright, who retired six consecutive batters after a leadoff walk in the second inning, then left after giving up a single and a Jake Cave triple to start the fourth. “I think that first inning, the inning definitely sped up on me. That’s the one thing you can’t really work on in a rehab start, is the extra deck, the speed of the game, the crowd.
“If I’d have done a better job in that first inning controlling the game, I think I would’ve been in a good spot. I kind of liked my stuff, I was just a little all over.”
The split left the Braves’ magic number at four to clinch the NL East. They can claim their sixth consecutive division title by winning both remaining games in this series against the second-place Phillies. Lose either, and the Braves will have to wait to clinch until at least a three-game series that starts Friday at Miami, where they clinched in the next-to-last game of the 2022 season.
Wright was charged with six hits, six runs and two walks with three strikeouts and one hit-by-pitch, almost all that damage in the first inning when the Phillies sent nine to the plate.
“I think once he got through that first inning, he started to settle in and had a better breaking ball, better command of his fastball,” Snitker said. “I was encouraged. You bring him off rehab and you put him in that first inning, in a situation like this — this team is every bit as powerful as we are — I really liked how he kind of got settled in and threw the ball pretty well.”
Olson’s three-run homer in the third inning of the nightcap got the Braves within a run, at 4-3, but the Phillies scored two more in the fourth. The second of those came on Trea Turner’s RBI double against reliever Jackson Stephens, a big contributor to the Braves’ bullpen a year ago. Stephens impressed in his season debut Monday, working 3 2/3 innings and giving up just two hits, one run and one walk with five strikeouts.
Olson added a solo homer in the sixth and leads the majors with 50 homers, one shy of the franchise record held by Andruw Jones, who hit 51 homers in 2005. Olson has 127 RBIs, eight behind the franchise record set by Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who drove in 135 in 1953. Olson has seven homers and 14 RBIs in the past nine games.
“What an unbelievable year he’s had,” Snitker said. “Happy for him. It couldn’t happen to a better person.”
Wright was out since May 4 with a recurring shoulder inflammation that required a cortisone injection in January. He was brought off the IL after only three rehab starts, sooner than planned because the Braves needed another starter Monday. Spencer Strider was slowed by a virus late last week and had his start pushed back to Wednesday’s series finale.
The Phillies jumped on Wright for four runs on four hits, a hit batter and a walk in the first inning, when he left pitches over the plate and threw a tick or two below his 2022 velocity. After leading the majors in wins and going 21-5 with a 3.19 ERA in 30 starts last season, he’s 0-2 with a 7.48 ERA in six starts this season.
Pillar is 34 years old, an 11-year veteran who plays the game like a September call-up trying to make an impression. Or, like a veteran trying to make himself indispensable in the latter stages of his career, which is what he is.
“I don’t know where I was in my career, but when he came up and then he established himself a little bit in the big leagues, he was a guy I was always curious about and wondered what it would be like to play with that guy,” said Charlie Morton, 39, who pitched six strong innings in Game 1, and is one of the few Braves old enough to be familiar with Pillar’s career.
“I love watching him play,” Morton said. “I respect the heck out of him, the way he plays the game. I’ve seen him sell out his body probably more times than I’ve seen anybody. Just put it on the line. So the chance to know him and be his teammate, it’s an honor. It really is. He’s great.”
Olson’s two-run double in the fifth inning of the opener pushed the Braves’ lead to 5-2. After the Phillies answered with two in the fifth — one on a Bryson Stott fly ball that Ronald Acuña Jr. lost in the sun for a double — the Braves extended the lead with homers on consecutive pitches to Harris and Acuña in a three-run sixth.
The Phillies got a two-run homer from Trea Turner in the seventh off lefty Dylan Lee, who was optioned to Triple A after the game, and a game-tying two-run homer from Bryce Harper with two out in the ninth off closer Raisel Iglesias, who hung a first-pitch changeup. Harper homered immediately after second baseman Ozzie Albies made an off-target throw to Olson on what was ruled a Turner single but should’ve been the final out.
“That’s the only thing you can really do in this game is turn the page real quick,” Pillar said of a trait he loves about this team. “I know Ozzie feels like he probably should have made that play. Things compound. But it’s part of the game. That’s why there are errors on the scoreboard — we’re human beings, we make mistakes.
“Iggy probably wants that pitch back, but that’s why it’s a team game, we pick each other up when opportunities present itself.”
And that’s what the Braves did in the 10th. With Forrest Wall serving as the ghost runner at second base, Pillar pinch-hit for Rosario against lefty José Alvarado, Pillar’s first plate appearance of the month. He took a first-pitch 97 mph sinker for a strike, then hit a 91 mph cutter at the top of the strike zone.
Pillar’s single gave the Braves the lead, with Orlando Arcia adding a run-scoring double two batters later for the 10-8 lead.
Pillar needed a strong spring to make the roster, and has produced despite the least amount of playing time he’s had in any of his full seasons on a big-league roster.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do, to not get consistent at-bats and then come in, especially in a situation like (Alvarado),” Olson said. “(Pillar) clearly was trying to go to the right side, and was able to get inside that cutter from Alvarado. Great at-bat.”
The Braves have the fewest plate appearances against lefty pitchers in the NL with 1,202 before Monday’s second game, which is at least 250 fewer than 12 NL teams and more than 300 fewer plate appearances than eight NL teams. That means plenty of starts for Rosario and few for Pillar.
In Monday’s second game, Pillar got the start in right field with Acuña at DH, the first time this season Acuña wasn’t in right. Snitker wanted to give Acuña some rest without taking him out of the lineup, since the MVP frontrunner aims to play all 162 games.
Acuña, already the first player in MLB history with at least 30 homers and 60 stolen bases in a season, became the first with least 35 and 65 after collecting his 65th stolen base in Monday’s first game. The sixth-inning homer was his 36th.
This was Pillar’s first start since two games against lefties at Colorado at the end of August when he went 3-for-8 with a home run and three RBIs. He hadn’t played since before his winning pinch-hit Monday.
Pillar was just 1-for-24 as a pinch-hitter before that 10th-inning single but has 11 hits in 29 at-bats in tie games, a .379 average in those situations that includes two doubles, four homers and an OPS over 1.200. He’s only 6-for-40 with one homer as a sub, but had six doubles, six homers, 19 RBIs and a .764 OPS in 33 starts before going 0-for-4 in Monday’s second game.
He’s praised by teammates and coaches for how he’s adapted to a limited role.
“In all honesty, I wish it came with some more at-bats,” Pillar said. “But when you’re in that role, you’re kind of subject to the way the (opponents’) starting pitching rotation works out. And it’s almost been comical at times, the lack of left-handed pitchers that we face. And I know they’re out there, I see them on TV all the time. (He laughed.) It’s just, for whatever reason — whether it’s the way the schedule works out, or some teams may manipulate their rotations a little bit because the numbers show that we hit left-handed pitching well — but it’s just one of those things.”
“You can go (one of) two ways, you can feel sorry for yourself and stop working, or just continue to work and wait for opportunities to present itself.”
(Photo of Kevin Pillar: Matt Slocum / Associated Press)