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After a slow start, CBC grad Matt Vierling zoomed back to help Phillies find a playoff pace

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Phillies Nationals Baseball

The Phillies' Matt Vierling runs the bases on his two-run home run against the Nationals on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Washington.

PHILADELPHIA — When the Phillies demoted their opening day center fielder, CBC graduate Matt Vierling, after their eighth game of May, his batting average of .170, like their record, had bobbed along at less than expected, his season moving at an unfamiliar rpm — slow. The team was already 7 ½ games out in the division, closer to last place than first.

When Vierling sped back to the majors he delivered a go-ahead home run against Milwaukee on the same day as his promotion, flipping a game for Philadelphia against the club the Phillies would finish ahead of for a postseason wild-card berth by one game.

As he found ways to contribute, the Phillies found ways to win.

All the way to the World Series.

Presented with those parallels this week, Vierling stood in the Phillies’ dugout after batting practice at Citizens Bank Park and paused.

“Now, thinking about it, it has in a way — start off slow, I went down to Triple-A, got adjusted, felt like myself again, and was able to come back up and help the team win in a bunch of different ways,” said Vierling, class of 2015 at CBC. “The team? We struggled early on. Same thing. Kind of figured some stuff out. Really came together as a team, got close almost like a family, and then we’ve gotten really good and really hot.”

The Fall Classic returned to Philadelphia for the first time since 2009 with Tuesday’s Game 3 at Citizens Bank. The last seed into the NL playoffs is also the last NL team standing, tied at a game apiece with Houston in the best-of-seven series.

Vierling, 26, began the season as the Phillies’ starting center fielder and ends it as the right-handed option against lefty starters and part of the good-hands team. He started the Phillies’ first playoff game this year — weeks ago at Busch Stadium — and got a single. He’s since appeared in nine games, mostly finishing them in left or center. It might seem like a long way from an everyday role, but he’s been farther, having to climb his way back from Class AAA after that May demotion.

“That can beat you up mentally when you get that close to your dream,” said Mason Horne, CBC’s head baseball coach. “You can start to wonder. But he knows who he is. He knew how to get back. … His personality is never to get too high, never too low, and we had big games he always seemed to come through. It’s kind of a silly comparison, but to me, he’s like a skipper on a submarine. They’ve got slow heartbeats.”

That read on Vierling is why Horne started him as sophomore in a Class 5 semifinal in 2013. Vierling threw six sterling innings and hit two home runs to lift CBC into the final. It was Vierling’s first multi-homer game for varsity. Two years later, in the state championship and playing alongside his brother Mark, Matt went four-for-five with three RBIs and a homer. Within in a week he was drafted by the Cardinals in the 30th round.

“He always had that clutch gene,” said Jake Burger, CBC teammate and now with the Chicago White Sox.

Even though Vierling did not sign, keeping a commitment to Notre Dame, interest from the hometown team put a punctuation on a senior season that featured a .451 average, a Cadets-best 32 RBIs, and a 2.07 ERA to go with an 8-0 record as a pitcher.

Vierling’s first run as an outfielder came in high school when Horne pulled him aside and explained how if he was going to play on varsity, he was not going to be shortstop. That position had a starter, and the Cadets wanted to save Vierling’s arm for pitching. Horne recalled telling Vierling: “Let’s showcase what you do best — run, be athletic, and you’ve got a big arm.”

Vierling had to remind himself of the things he does best when he returned to the Phillies’ Class AAA affiliate, starting within 36 hours of his demotion.

Worse than a slow start, he felt he had slowed up.

As his production dipped and playing time drifted, he felt he had decelerated to playing safe, avoiding mistakes instead of making plays.

“There’s a bunch of stuff that goes through your head — fear of failure, just not being who you are on the field,” said Vierling, the Phillies’ fifth-round pick in 2018. “I knew I belonged. But I needed to feel like I belonged, to prove it to myself again. I had to go back to just playing the game, pushing the envelope. It was a choice. I had to make a choice every day, every at-bat. Every time I got on the basepaths, it was, OK, we’ve got to go, go, go, push the envelope. You can do more when you play like that than you actually think.”

Vierling stole seven bases in his first 10 games at Triple-A.

In 21 games, he hit .271, slugged .459, and was back in the majors less than a month after leaving. The night he returned, June 7, he hit a home run off Milwaukee All-Star Josh Hader that was part of ending Hader’s streak of 40 consecutive scoreless appearances. Fast-forward four months and wins like that inched the Phillies into the playoffs where they found their stride and left Vierling so little time to respond to texts. There’s a group chat of CBC teammates, Burger said, and while they celebrate a Cadet in the Classic, Vierling hasn’t had time to keep up.

It’s all happened so fast.

“It all accumulates,” Vierling said. “Last year, the last month helped me for this year. This year will help me for next year. Those ups and downs all year prepare you for this because there are going to be ups and downs in this too. And it all sets you up for the postseason.”

Cardinals trim roster

As part of the annual offseason roster rearrangement, the Cardinals outrighted infielder Kramer Robertson and right-hander Kodi Whitley to the Class AAA roster. Those moves, along with the retirements of Molina and Pujols, clear four spots from the 40-man roster ahead of free agency and other decisions on prospects who must be protected. In the near future, the Cardinals must choose whether to place slugger Moises Gomez on the 40-man roster after he set the Cardinals’ organization single-season record with 39 homers. If he is not added to the roster within the week, Gomez can become a minor-league free agent.

Extra bases

St. Louis-native Ryan Howard, the NL MVP with the Phillies in 2006, was part of a star-studded group that caught the ceremonial first pitches before Game 3. Delivering the pitches were past champions in Philadelphia – Mike Schmidt, Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, and Bernie Parent alongside former Philadelphia Eagle Brandon Graham. Howard was joined on the field by teammates from the Phillies’ 2008 title team: Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino, and Jayson Werth. … Major League Baseball set the service time threshold to qualify for salary arbitration as a “Super Two’ at 2 years, 128 days. While no Cardinals were catapulted into the mix for a significant pay hike, two former Cardinals – Phillies shortstop Edmundo Sosa and Tampa Bay outfielder Randy Arozarena – are now eligible, and Arozarena, given his past October performance, could see a steep raise. … AL Cy Young Award favorite Justin Verlander “is in pencil, not in ink,” to be Houston’s Game 5 starter, manager Dusty Baker said.

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