PHILADELPHIA — Eighteen days ago, José Alvarado screamed. He pumped his left arm in celebration and he screamed once more. He could feel it all again when he stranded the tying runs on base to save a Sept. 4 win in San Diego. His mother, Crelia, called from Venezuela the next day. She had seen a video of her son’s excitement.
“How do you feel?” Crelia asked José.
He told her it was great to help his teammates. He told her he was feeling like himself again. And, he told his mother, this was the moment.
“From here, every game is like that,” Alvarado said to his mother. “Playoff energy.”
There were two outs in the ninth inning of Thursday night’s 5-4 Phillies win when manager Rob Thomson sauntered to the mound. He had used his closer, Craig Kimbrel, in the eighth because he liked the matchups against the middle of the Mets’ lineup. That meant Alvarado for the ninth. The tying run was on second base and first base was open. Thomson had a question for Alvarado: Do you want to face Pete Alonso or Francisco Lindor?
“I want to compete with Alonso,” Alvarado said to his manager. “Let’s do it.”
“That’s what you want to hear,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said.
Thomson told Alvarado to be careful. “I wanted to make sure they had a plan against him,” Thomson said. “Not be afraid to walk him. Calm things down. And he went right after him. He did a great job.” Alvarado fired two 100 mph sinkers. Alonso took the first and swung through the second.
Realmuto called for another sinker. It was almost down the middle. Alonso froze. Strike two.
“I think 1-1 he was thinking cutter,” Realmuto said. “And we threw a fastball right by him. After that, he has to reset. ‘They threw me three straight fastballs, now they might throw another fastball just because I took the last one.’ He might have been on the cutter. He’s such a good hitter. But when Alvy’s able to throw strikes with both, it doesn’t matter how good of a hitter you are. You have to pick one and basically guess right.”
Jose Alvarado slams the door to secure a @Phillies win!
FINAL: NYM 4, PHI 5 pic.twitter.com/SJFJtCXynW
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) September 22, 2023
Alvarado threw an absurd cutter at 95 mph, down and in, almost to the perfect spot. Alonso whiffed. Game over.
“Nasty,” second baseman Bryson Stott said.
Eighteen days ago, when Alvarado sealed the Padres game, the last pitch he threw was a 91 mph cutter. The location wasn’t great. But it did the trick. Ever since that outing, Alvarado’s cutter has regained its life. The average velocity has jumped 2 mph in less than two weeks. It looks like the pitch that saved his career a season ago — and made him into an October weapon.
The list of people that carried the Phillies to the National League pennant last year is long. Alvarado was among the most important. If that version of Alvarado reappears, it changes things for the Phillies late in games.
“It means everything,” Realmuto said. “You saw our run we went on last year and that does not happen without Alvarado. Having him at his best is key to this team. It was good to see that out of him tonight. I think when he has his cutter going like that and he’s able to throw strikes with his fastball, he’s one of the toughest at-bats in the big leagues.”
Last October, Crelia did not come to America to watch her son. None of Alvarado’s family from Venezuela made it. The Phillies leaned on him time and time again in the postseason until he finally failed in Game 6 of the World Series. He vowed to overcome it, to not be defined by allowing a mammoth three-run homer that ultimately decided the championship. He was as good as any reliever in baseball for this season’s first month. He spent time on the injured list twice with elbow soreness. He has not always resembled the pitcher who flourished during a 2022 breakout season.
He has been thinking about October.
“I don’t want to pass up this situation,” Alvarado said. “Last year, the team went to the World Series. Nobody from my family was here. This year, this team, I want to see my family here.”
The Phillies slipped into the postseason in 2022 and so many different players rose to moments that no one had imagined for them. They rewrote this franchise’s recent history. Now, they are not a team that stumbles. They embrace the moments.
Alvarado, an emotional man, might epitomize that. He started to feel the energy that night in San Diego. It lifted him.
“I feel like I’m back,” Alvarado said. “I’m very confident right now. Very consistent to the strike zone. I’m waiting for my opportunity. Throw my pitches, attack the strike zone as much as I can, and that’s it.”
It hasn’t been perfect. Alvarado has a 2.57 ERA since Sept. 4 with 11 strikeouts in seven innings but also five walks. He hasn’t always thrown first-pitch strikes. On Thursday night, he fell behind Brandon Nimmo, who doubled to put Alvarado in a precarious position. Sometimes, it’s an adventure.
He shied away from his cutter in August. Maybe he was worried about the elbow. The Mets saw six cutters Thursday and whiffed at three of them.
“I thought his cutter was about as good as we’ve seen it probably since before he went on the IL,” Realmuto said.
Alvarado agreed. He had tinkered with things — the grip, the usage. Now, he’s just ripping it.
“The cutter is really good right now,” Alvarado said. “I don’t need to change anything right now. Let’s go out, compete, attack the hitter. That’s it.”
This is the Alvarado the Phillies came to love last year. It’s what earned him a $22 million contract over the winter. He made his money in October, and it’s almost here again.
“I started to feel that energy,” Alvarado said, “the game I closed in San Diego.”
And his mom noticed.
(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)