Will Smith stepped into the batter’s box in the ninth inning of a tie game Saturday night without a home run on his brief major-league résumé, or a walk-off homer at any level of his baseball career.
And when the rookie catcher with six days of big-league experience fell behind 0-and-2 against Philadelphia Phillies closer Hector Neris in front of a raucous sellout crowd at Dodger Stadium, checking those boxes did not appear imminent.
But Smith battled back, laying off a fastball and two splitters out of the strike zone, before Neris offered one that caught the middle of the plate, knee high. Smith unloaded, lifting it high in the air, a moonshot against the pitch-black sky. It kept going and going and going down the left-field line, until it finally landed a few rows deep in the seats, next to the Dodgers’ bullpen for his first career home run and a 4-3 victory.
“I couldn’t have asked for a bigger stage and bigger moment,” Smith, 24, said. “I’ll remember that one forever.”
Smith’s work completed the Dodgers’ second walk-off win in four days — fellow rookie Alex Verdugo provided the game-winning sacrifice fly in Wednesday’s triumph against the New York Mets — and it saved them after more late-inning tribulation.
The Dodgers (40-19) were holding a 3-1 lead in the eighth inning when Bryce Harper, the recipient of boos every time his name has been announced the last two nights, spoiled Clayton Kershaw’s splendid outing and knotted the game with a two-run home run off Julio Urias.
Harper’s exploits continued Urias’ sudden struggles out of the bullpen. After giving up two home runs in his first 30 innings, Urias has given up three in his last two outings. The left-hander has given up four runs and six hits in five innings since coming off administrative leave following his May 13 arrest on suspicion of domestic battery.
“First-pitch cement-mixer slider to Harper and he’s going to slug you,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “But for him to come back out there for the ninth inning and throw up a zero shows his character.”
The 95th and final pitch Kershaw fired Saturday was, at once, a display of both his recent limitations and remaining elite ability.
The Phillies’ Scott Kingery had cracked a leadoff double, and Kershaw was an out away from wiggling free from danger in a one-run game. His last pitch was the seventh in a battle with pinch-hitter Sean Rodriguez, a fastball clocked at 91 mph, far from the velocity most pitchers require for success, but it was in on the hands, perfectly placed, and it induced a swing-and-miss for strike three.
Kershaw pumped his fist. A roar pulsated throughout the ballpark. The process was different, but the results were what the onlookers have come to expect for a decade. Kershaw completed his night having allowed one run and six hits across seven innings. He fanned six batters without issuing a walk. The Dodgers have won Kershaw’s last 17 regular-season starts.
“I think this, from recent memory, was the best I’ve seen Clayton throw,” Roberts said.
The run Kershaw surrendered came after Max Muncy, making his third straight start at third for the injured Justin Turner, committed an error on Rhys Hoskins’ ground ball in the fourth inning. What could have been an inning-ending double play ended up with J.T. Realmuto smacking an RBI single.
David Freese batted leadoff in a regular-season game for the fourth time in his 11-year career, a strategy prompted by the Phillies using left-hander Jose Alvarez as an opener. Freese, a right-handed batter who mashes left-handers in his career, was positioned to counter Alvarez as many times as possible but flied out in his only plate appearance before Alvarez was pulled.
Los Angeles widened the gap in the seventh inning on Muncy’s sacrifice fly. The run proved pivotal minutes later once Harper blasted a fastball from Urias over the wall in left-center to set the stage for Smith.
Called up on Monday, Smith has impressed in four starts. The Dodgers believe he possesses Gold Glove-caliber defense behind the plate, and his offense took a leap this season with triple-A Oklahoma City — he was batting .290 with eight home runs and a .954 on-base-plus-slugging percentage when he was summoned to Los Angeles, and he hasn’t looked overmatched in the majors.
But chances are Smith won’t be with Los Angeles by the end of the week. If all goes as planned, Roberts has said, the Dodgers will send him back to Oklahoma City once Austin Barnes is eligible to come off the injured list. If that happens, Smith will have to wait his turn once again even if he’s already proven he can make an impact.
“All first homers are memorable but a walk-off, Dodger Stadium, against a closer, packed house [is different],” Roberts said. “Great players rise to the occasion like that and it’s good to see him do that in the infancy of his career.”