Phillies

Cliff Lee ponders future after tough-luck loss

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Cliff Lee ponders future after tough-luck loss

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ATLANTA -- The way Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitched in the second half of the season, it’s a shame the Phillies aren’t going to the playoffs. The two lefties could have formed a dangerous tandem in the month of October.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing the Phillies’ season will end on Sunday. This team’s offense would probably just have broken your heart in October anyway.

Two months before Thanksgiving, Lee had the carving knife out Friday night. He pitched eight spectacular innings against the Atlanta Braves, walked none, struck out 13 -- and still lost!

Braves third baseman Chris Johnson gave his team a 1-0 win when he stroked a down-and-in, 0-2 slider into the left-field seats to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).

“It basically came down to one pitch,” Lee said. “I felt like I made a good pitch. I was trying to bury it down and in and it was down and in. I think it was a ball. He put a good swing on it and hit a home run and that’s the game.

“It’s frustrating, but you’ve got to give credit to (Atlanta starter) Kris Medlen. He shut us down for eight innings and (closer) Craig Kimbrel came in at the end. It was a well-pitched game on both sides. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Medlen held the Phillies to two hits over eight innings.

“When a guy pitches like that, you want to back him with a little offense,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said of Lee. “The conversations in the dugout every inning were, ‘Let’s go. The guy is pitching his tail off.’”

Lee finished his season 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA. His September was spectacular: In five starts, he allowed eight earned runs in 39 innings (1.85 ERA). He walked one -- one -- and struck out 54. That makes him the first pitcher in the history of the game to have a month with 50 strikeouts and one or few walks.

Not too shabby.

In 12 starts after the All-Star break, Lee had a 2.89 ERA. Hamels had a 2.97 in 13 starts after the break.

“I gave the team a chance to win just about every time I took the mound,” Lee said. “As a starting pitcher, I feel pretty good about that.”

Giving the team a chance to win doesn’t always equal a win, especially with this Phillies’ offense.

The Phils have lost eight of their last nine games. They have scored just 19 runs in those nine games. They have not homered in nine straight games, their longest home-run drought since 1989.

Lee, a frequent victim of poor run support, hopes the Phillies add some offense in the offseason.

“No doubt,” he said. “I think we all would. It’s been a big part of our struggles, lack of scoring runs. But we’ve also had games where we scored a bunch of runs and screwed it up on the mound. It takes a total package. You have to hit, pitch, play defense and have a good bullpen.”

Three seasons into his five-year contract with the Phillies, Lee has made the playoffs only once, in 2011. He finished in the top 10 in ERA in the league last year and will do so again this year. That’s a lot of personal success and no postseason to show for it. Lee turned 35 in August. Does he feel like he’s using up a lot of good bullets as his clock ticks?

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m getting up there in age. I’m 35 years old now and when this contract’s over I plan on going home, so I’m running out of opportunities. All I can control is what I can control, and I’m going to do everything I can to help us win. That’s all I know how to do.”

Don’t fret, Lee fans. The lefty still has two guaranteed years left on his contract (at $25 million per season) and a vesting option for 2016. So he could be around for three more years -- and maybe more because he did leave himself wiggle room in his comments.

But he left no doubt that he wants to get back to the postseason while he’s still a difference-maker.

“Right now, I don’t [see myself pitching beyond this contract],” Lee said. “There are a lot of things that can happen between now and then, but I just know that my kids are 12 and 10 and I’ve basically missed the first half of their lives.

“I’m financially able to shut it down, so … that’s how I feel right now. But when the time comes I might look at it differently.

“I also want to finish being good, not struggling and fumbling through at the end. I want to finish strong and take it to the house. Next year, I want to win a World Series, then another one, then another one and take it to the house. That’s what I’m wanting to do.”

Phillies are 14-7 and there's reason to think they'll get even better

Phillies are 14-7 and there's reason to think they'll get even better

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If you were told at the beginning of the season that 21 games in, Carlos Santana would be hitting .151 and Aaron Altherr .157 ... what would you think the Phillies' record would be?

It probably would not have been 14-7.

And yet here the Phillies are, a game behind the Diamondbacks for the best record in the National League after completing a four-game sweep of the Pirates Sunday.

This win was dramatic, with the Phillies coming back from a two-run deficit and walking it off in the 11th inning (see first take). Altherr played the hero with a game-winning single after Andrew Knapp just missed a walk-off homer to the left-field wall and settled for a triple.

After the game, manager Gabe Kapler called it the proudest he's been of his team.

"I just think there were so many standout performances up and down the lineup, across our roster," Kapler said. "Getting Tommy (Hunter) back, there were just so many positive things that happened, you can't help but instill confidence.

"We're having a lot of fun. Keeping it light, we laugh in the dugout. I hope you guys are seeing that. A lot of smiles and a lot of laughter, and after the games, we're having a great time in [the clubhouse]. We take it seriously and we prepare like animals, but we also enjoy each others' company and we're laughing a lot."

The most interesting part about this hot start is that the Phillies aren't even firing on all cylinders. The pitching has been great — particularly the starters, who have a 2.38 ERA and 0.98 WHIP the last 12 games — but the Phils are hitting just .231.

They do, however, lead the majors with 98 walks. They couldn't muster much offense Sunday against Pirates right-hander Trevor Williams, but they made him work. Through five innings, Williams was at 83 pitches with a breakdown of 42 strikes and 41 balls.

"Once we really start getting going it's gonna be real fun because we're in these games even when we're not feeling the best at the plate," Knapp said.

"We've been putting really quality at-bats together. I know the average isn't there, but we're making pitchers really work. We're seeing a ton of pitches and that's a big deal." 

Altherr didn't even start Sunday, but he came in midway through the game on a double-switch and ended up going 3 for 3 with a triple and the game-winning knock. He needed a game like this in the worst way. He entered the afternoon 5 for 48 (.104) with 18 strikeouts.

"It can be really difficult," Altherr admitted. "It's getting more difficult as the days went on. I know it's just baseball and things like [bad luck] happen, but you start wondering when it's going to start turning here. I'm just trying to stay positive and working the cage. I've been working on getting my timing back."

Kapler was especially excited for Altherr, who will be a key member of this offense moving forward even after a rough April.

"Coming out of camp, we felt strongly that he was one our best offensive players," Kapler said of Altherr. "We felt like he was going to be an incredible contributor with the bat. And he's had to endure a lot early in the season. He's had some bad luck. He's had to endure not being an everyday guy so far. 

"Every single day he came with a smile on his face. He's come prepared. He's worked his tail off. Good things happen to good people. He's going to get plenty of opportunities to perform for us. But I couldn't be happier for the way his at-bats have gone over the course of the last three or four days. He just got rewarded today. It felt like everything fell into place the way it should for Aaron. Really, really excited he came up big the way he did today. He deserves it."

Phillies' 2 most surprising pitchers pave way for walk-off win

Phillies' 2 most surprising pitchers pave way for walk-off win

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The Phillies walked it off against the Pirates Sunday, winning 3-2 in 11 innings to complete a four-game sweep over a team that entered Citizens Bank Park six games over .500.

Andrew Knapp and Aaron Altherr took care of the 11th-inning heroics with a triple and a game-winning single, but it was the work of the Phillies' two most surprising pitchers which put them in position to do so.

Nick Pivetta continued the Phillies' strong run of starting pitching, allowing two runs over 6⅓ innings with seven strikeouts. He paid for his only mistake, a two-run homer by catcher Elias Diaz. The Phils had just one hit while Pivetta was in the game.

Victor Arano, who began the season by retiring 25 consecutive batters, lost his streak of perfection but more importantly weaved his way out of rallies in both the ninth and 10th innings, stranding two runners apiece.

At 14-7, the Phillies ended Sunday's game just a half-game behind the Mets and Diamondbacks for the best record in the National League.

They allowed just five runs in the four-game sweep of the Pirates.

Dominant starting pitching
The Phillies' starting rotation has been lights-out the last dozen games. Just have a look:

• 2.38 ERA
• 0.98 WHIP
• 8.0 K/9
• 1.8 BB/9
• .218 opponents' batting average
• 11 extra-base hits allowed in 12 games

Pivetta himself is on a roll, allowing a total of five runs in his last four starts. 

Including the final few weeks of 2017, Pivetta has a 2.00 ERA over his last eight outings with 47 strikeouts and 12 walks in 45 innings.

Pivetta has been especially effective the first time facing a batting order this season. His opponents have hit .167/.195/.195 the first time through with 15 strikeouts and no walks.

There are just three National League pitchers who have 14 Ks and no walks the first time through a batting order and the Phillies have two of them in Pivetta and Vince Velasquez. (D-backs lefty Patrick Corbin is the other.)

Make 'em work
Offensively, the Phils couldn't muster much off Pirates right-hander Trevor Williams. They did, however, have five walks and a two-run fifth inning keyed by Pivetta's first career double and RBI. 

Through five innings, Williams had thrown 42 strikes and 41 balls. This Phils team really makes pitchers work.

Hunter debuts
Reliever Tommy Hunter made his Phillies debut after missing the first 20 games with a hamstring injury. He had a quick, impressive eighth inning, retiring the side on just eight pitches with a groundout, popout and strikeout.

Hunter was signed to a two-year, $18 million contract this offseason.

Up next
The Phillies are off Monday before beginning a three-game home series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who entered Sunday tied with the Mets for the best record in the NL (14-6).

The pitching matchups for that series:

Tuesday: Vince Velasquez (1-2, 3.80) vs. LHP Robbie Ray (2-0, 4.98)

Wednesday: Jake Arrieta (2-0, 2.04) vs. Zack Greinke (2-1, 4,13)

Thursday: Ben Lively (0-1, 4.64) vs. Matt Koch (0-0, 1.13)