Nick Williams circled the bases Monday night with his trademark grin after his pinch-hit, eighth-inning home run that would lift the Phillies to a 6-5 win over the Reds. It was a moment the outfielder needed after a challenging week to start the season. And it would have seemed impossible a year ago.
The hitter's path around the bases started well before he stepped into the box against Cincinnati righthander Kevin Quackenbush at Citizens Bank Park. It started last week. when the Phillies showed Williams footage of his striking out last season. It was ugly, Williams thought. He found success as a rookie as a free-swinging hitter who went to the plate with little of a plan. But he also left himself vulnerable.
When manager Gabe Kapler sent him to the plate Monday, Williams grabbed his bat and was armed with a plan. Williams waited for Quackenbush to throw him what he wanted. First- pitch curveball? No thanks. Second-pitch fastball? Williams laid off that. He watched a low fastball for ball three. The Phillies gave Williams a 3-0 green light, but he opted to take a strike instead of hacking at the pitcher's fastball down the middle. Williams was sticking to his plan.
And then Quackenbush fired another fastball down the middle. Williams was ready for it and he pounced, rocketing the ball into the seats in right-center for what would be the winning home run, the first pinch-hit homer of his career. His plan worked.
"I was comfortable," Williams said. "I saw the first pitch going down instantly and said 'OK. Wow.' Stuck with my approach and it shows what happens when you do that."
Williams was out of Monday's lineup for the sixth time in the team's first nine games. He aired his dismay last week about his playing time and met with Kapler on Friday for what the manager called a "heart to heart." The two found common ground. Williams apologized. It was a lesson for everyone, the manager said. Williams wants to play more. And there is no better argument to play more than coming through when the manager calls your name.
"I'm not thinking about that," Williams said. "I'm confident in my approach and my abilities to go out there and compete. At the same time, I just want to win and do whatever I can with the opportunities I get to help the team win."
Williams provided the game-winning homer, but the night, he said, belonged to Scott Kingery, who hit his first career homer. Kingery launched a solo shot in the second after Rhys Hoskins hit a two-run homer in the first.
"They're going to be in the lineup a lot together and it's going to be fun to see them bounce that energy back and forth," Kapler said. "Kind of funny to see how many times those guys both hit home runs in the same game this season. That'll be fun to watch."
It was a needed win for the Phillies, who opened a series against one of the National League's weaker teams. If the Phillies are to make noise this season, the first month of the season will be crucial. They handled the Marlins over the weekend and have to do the same with the Reds before heading to Tampa Bay this weekend to play the even weaker Rays.
Hector Neris retired three of the four batters he faced in the ninth to earn his first save of the season. Jose Peraza struck out swinging and Joey Votto lined out to a perfectly shifted Cesar Hernandez in short right field before Tucker Barnhart made the last out by looking at a nasty splitter for strike three.
Adam Morgan, Yacksel Rios, and Luis Garcia pieced together three relief innings to keep the score tied until Williams went to the plate.
Ben Lively allowed five runs in 5 2/3 innings. Kapler chose to push Lively into the sixth inning even though the pitcher had already thrown 86 pitches and was not exactly cruising. The manager had been cautious with his starting pitching early in the season and Lively was a curious choice to become the first pitcher permitted to reach 100 pitches.
He started the sixth by allowing the first two batters to reach before producing a double-play ball to bring up Billy Hamilton with a runner on third. Hamilton laced a sharp grounder back to the mound, but it deflected off Lively's hand and Phillip Ervin scored to tie the game, ending Lively's night. The pitcher did just enough to keep the Phillies in the game.
Lively appeared to be in for a disastrous night when he loaded the bases in the first inning and walked in a run without recording an out. But he recovered. Lively retired the next seven batters, four on strikeouts. He gave up a two-run homer in the third to Barnhart and a RBI double in the fourth to Scooter Gennett. Lively was not perfect, but he finished much better than expected after the way his night began.