ATLANTA — Matt Strahm sat in the pen with Orion Kerkering before his performance Saturday night and was surprised by how calm the 22-year-old rookie seemed. He was about to take center stage in an important game, facing a historically good Braves lineup in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series. With only a 2-0 lead for the Phillies, he didn’t have much room for error.
But Kerkering didn’t care. And that translated to the mound. He retired Orlando Arcia, Sean Murphy and Eddie Rosario on just eight pitches. He was so effective that manager Rob Thomson called him up to fight Ronald Acuña Jr. late in the eighth period, but Kerkering passed him and was pulled after that.
Nevertheless, it was a relatively stress-free performance after a stressful match.
“This runway is very cool, calm and collected,” Strahm said. “And he is very well adapted. To me it was just another day for him.
The trip made a greater impression on Strahm that a few days earlier Kerkering had not looked so calm, calm and composed. Jeff Hoffman sat next to the rookie before his first postseason appearance against the Marlins on Wednesday. and noticed that the vein in Kerkering’s neck had begun to throb.
“Strahm,” Hoffman said. “Check this out.”
Strahm turned to Kerkering.
“Hey, Orion,” he said. “Make sure you’re breathing, boy.”
Kerkering laughed and started walking around the pen to relax. Sometimes while waiting for a trip, you become more anxious than during the trip itself. But Strahm’s words helped him. He took a breather, walked the eighth and threw a 1-2-3 inning with one hit. It only took him nine pitches.
After the game, Craig Kimbrel approached Kerkering in the clubhouse.
“What kind of feeling is it?” He asked.
“I felt good,” Kerkering replied.
“Well, it looked good,” Kimbrel said.
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The Phillies bullpen is loaded with veterans. Before Kerkering was called up in September, José Alvarado was their youngest substitute (he was 28). Kerkering was born in 2001. When the 35-year-old Kimbrel made his big league debut, Kerkering was just 9 years old. However, despite the age difference, the Phillies players made a concerted effort to welcome a new player to the group.
“When I made my debut with the Royals, I was lucky to have a veteran club,” Strahm said. “There were a lot of guys I watched and learned from. I kind of talked a lot as a newbie, and Orion in his first week here, I don’t think he said more than two or three words unless he was spoken to. So I tried to kind of break him in, make him feel comfortable. He will help us a lot.”
“I was in a similar place when I was a rookie,” Kimbrel said. “My first year with the Braves, I got a chance to play in the playoffs. I got a chance to make a difference and that kind of started my career. So let’s hope it will be a chance for him too. He will be an important element for us.”
Their efforts did not go unnoticed. What Kerkering has accomplished in a year is remarkable, but it can also be overwhelming for such a young player, no matter how competitive he is. Small interactions like the ones he had with Strahm and Kimbrel helped him feel like he belonged to this group.
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“Everyone was very welcoming,” Kerkering said. “They’re trying to get to know me. It’s not like, “Oh, you’re a rookie, we don’t care, you’re taking someone else’s place.” It means, “You’re here for a reason.” You are part of our family now. They treat me like I’m someone who was around. Not someone new.
“And it’s because of the little things. Talking [bleep] in the bull pen and things like that.
Kerkering is more of a visual learner. He watched Kimbrel and Alvarado warm up for their postseason trips and noticed they weren’t changing anything. His teammates encouraged him to ask questions when needed. But above all, they emphasized how much trust they had in him.
“Move on after this match [Wednesday]I asked him what his heartbeat was,” Hoffman said. “He said it felt like a normal match, and I said, ‘Well, if you keep it a secret, everything else will take care of itself. So keep doing what you’re doing. Everything will be fine. We believe in you.'”
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