Everything goes right for Phillies as they beat one of baseball's best pitchers

Everything goes right for Phillies as they beat one of baseball's best pitchers


A lot of things have to go right for a bad team to snap an eight-game losing streak against a pitcher who finished in the top five of the American League Cy Young voting each of the last four seasons and might end up winning it this season.

And a lot of things did go right for the Phillies on Thursday night as they rallied for a 1-0 win over lefty Chris Sale and the Boston Red Sox (see Instant Replay), salvaging one game of a home-and-home interleague series that saw the Sox win twice in Boston on walk-off hits in extra innings and take the first game in Philadelphia, 7-3, on Wednesday.

Among the pluses that the Phillies strung together in winning their first ballgame in more than a week:

• Starting pitcher Nick Pivetta looked a lot closer to the guy who dominated at Triple A than the guy who struggled with his control in his first six big-league starts. The right-hander scattered four hits over seven shutout innings and struck out nine. He walked just two, a big improvement after he'd walked 16 in his first 29 1/3 innings.

• The defense was outstanding. Second baseman Howie Kendrick and leftfielder Daniel Nava combined to save three runs behind Pivetta with big plays.

• The relief pitching was on point. Pat Neshek's 25th inning of the season — he's allowed just two runs — might have been his best as he struck out dangerous Dustin Pedroia then got Xander Bogaerts to pop out to keep the game knotted at 0-0 in the eighth. Neshek got both of those outs with a man on third.

• The Phillies only had four hits on the night, but two of them were clutch — Andrew Knapp's one-out single off Sale in the bottom of the eighth and Ty Kelly's go-ahead, pinch-hit double that scored the game's only run one batter later (see story).

• The base running was also good as Knapp sprinted 270 feet from first base to score on Kelly's double. Third base coach Juan Samuel made a good call waving Knapp aggressively when he read a poor throw from leftfielder Andrew Benintendi.

That's a lot of good stuff from a team not known for good stuff.

"Boy, that was nice to see," manager Pete Mackanin said after the game. "We played those guys tough the whole series and we could have won a couple more."

One is better than none.

The win left the Phillies at 22-43. Despite having the worst mark in the majors, Phillies players buzzed with excitement after the game.

"That's an All-Star on the mound over there," said Knapp, reminding folks what pitcher the Phillies beat. "Going punch for punch with him gives us a lot of confidence. It's a pretty sweet win."

Sale struck out 10.

Pivetta had four 1-2-3 innings. He issued both of his walks in the second inning when things could have fallen apart for him if it weren't for Kendrick's tremendous diving play on a bases-loaded ball up the middle.

"Huge play," said the grateful Pivetta. "If that ball gets through, we're behind one or two runs and that's really hard against a guy like Sale. Just phenomenal. And Nava's play, too."

Nava gunned down a potential run at the plate in the fifth.

The game turned in the eighth, first with Neshek's work — he allowed a leadoff double and pitched out of trouble — then with the two improbable offensive heroes, Knapp and Kelly.

Knapp broke his bat on his single to left against Sale. That was a good thing because it allowed the ball to die in front of leftfielder Benintendi. Kelly's go-ahead double came on a breaking ball. He lined it into the left-field corner. Two nights earlier in Boston, Samuel had the potential tiebreaking run snuffed out at the plate on a throw from Benintendi. That was also in the eighth inning. This time, Samuel found redemption. It helped that Benintendi missed the cutoff man.

"Same kind of situation, exactly," Samuel said. "As you know, we're not scoring a lot of runs and we're not winning a whole lot of games. So in a situation like that you have to push the envelope a little bit.

"I was reading the throw and once I saw him overthrow the cutoff man, that had something to do with the decision also. But at the same time, we're facing Chris Sale. How many runs are we going to get? So you have to take some chances."

Is this the win that finally gets the Phillies going?

Who knows? Really, at this point it's reasonable to wonder if they are even capable of getting going. They put up a modest four-game win streak early last week then proceeded to lose eight in a row.

So maybe the thing to do is just enjoy this one, hope that Pivetta's outing was a sign of real growth, and get ready to play the Arizona Diamondbacks as they come in for the weekend.

Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta goes to school on Justin Verlander

AP Images/USA Today Images

Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta goes to school on Justin Verlander


DUNEDIN, Fla. — For a gazillion years, pitchers have been told to keep the ball down. That is still valuable advice, but with more and more hitters looking to launch the ball with an upward swing path these days, power pitchers are striking back with a high fastball above the bat head.

Nick Pivetta has a power fastball and he’s working on this technique. He consciously threw some fastballs above the belt in his two-inning spring debut Friday against the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We're telling all of our pitchers, we're asking them to do some new things,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “And there's going to be some times in spring training games when you get hit a little bit.”

That’s OK. The new-school Phillies want their players to be open to new ideas. Pivetta, who struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings in 26 starts last season, is open learning to ride a high fastball by a hitter looking to launch. He watched on television as Justin Verlander did that for Houston in the postseason last year and he’s watched more video of Verlander and interacted with Phillies coaches about the strategy this spring.

“A key point that they brought to me was how Verlander pitched in the playoffs,” Pivetta said. “I think that’s something I can learn from a lot of the time, how he did it when he came over to Houston.

“It’s part of pitching. You’ve got to be able to command the zone, both the top and bottom. It’s not to say we’re going to only throw up. It’s just something else to work on.”

Pivetta pitched two innings and struck out three in the 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays. He allowed three hits, a walk and two runs in the first inning. One of the hits was a solo homer by Curtis Granderson on a hanging breaking ball.

Kapler was pleased with Pivetta’s performace and his reponse to trying new things.

“He executed his game plan today,” Kapler said. “He executed some pretty nasty sliders at the bottom of the zone. He executed some fastballs at the top of the zone. He missed some bats, which is really encouraging.

“One of the things we’re working on with him is elevating a little bit. He has velocity and strong pitch characteristics to pitch up in the zone. But he also has the ability to pitch down in the zone with his slider and his curveball.

“He kicked ass today. He did everything we asked him to do.”

The Phillies host the Orioles on Saturday. Zach Eflin will be the starting pitcher.

Lost and found — K-Rod enjoys solid debut with Phillies

USA Today Images

Lost and found — K-Rod enjoys solid debut with Phillies


DUNEDIN, Fla. — Francisco Rodriguez navigated the narrow streets of this friendly, little, old-school spring training burg looking for a place to park his Mercedes late Friday morning.

Finally, after asking several people for directions, he found a spot near the grounds crew shed at Dunedin Stadium.

The episode was a bit of a metaphor for Rodriguez’s workday with the Phillies. Back on the mound in a game situation for the first time since last summer, Rodriguez allowed a walk to the first batter he faced and later a single, but stayed composed and left two runners on base in notching a scoreless inning in his first action of the spring in a 2-1 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.

“I felt kind of lost the first couple of batters,” Rodriguez said. “But once I got a ground ball, I started locating. It had been a while since I was on the mound in a game.”

Rodriguez, 36, is the most decorated player in Phillies camp. He is a six-time All-Star and baseball’s active leader in saves (437) and appearances (948). Released twice last season, he is trying to win a spot in the Phillies’ bullpen as a non-roster invite to camp.

He opened last season as Detroit’s closer, but was released in June after recording a 7.82 ERA in 28 games. The Nationals took a peek at him in the minors a few weeks later and also let him go.

Rodriguez said he was not healthy last season. He said he had issues with his groin and hamstring.

“I couldn’t be 100 percent,” he said. “But that’s not an excuse. I should have found a way to get the job done in Detroit and I couldn’t. That’s one of the reasons that I’m in this situation now.”

Rodriguez ranks fourth all time in saves behind Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith. He does not have the power fastball that once earned him the nickname K-Rod — he topped out at 89 mph Friday — but location, a good changeup and old-fashioned savvy are still strengths. Pitching coach Rick Kranitz was influential in bringing in Rodriguez for a look. The two were together in Milwaukee, where Rodriguez was an All-Star in 2014 and 2015.

“He’s a great reliever,” Kranitz said.

Does he have anything left?

“I believe so, yes,” Kranitz said.

Kranitz went on to say that Rodriguez was a high-character guy who would help the Phillies’ young pitchers.

Rodriguez was asked what pushed him to continue his career and come to camp essentially on a tryout.

“I love the game,” he said. “I don’t think I have to prove anything. I don’t think I went to Walmart and bought 900 appearances and 437 saves. I did that with a lot of pride and hard work. This is the only thing I know how to do, play baseball. God gave me the opportunity to throw a baseball and I’m going to continue to do it.”

The Phillies may go with an eight-man bullpen. That could help Rodriguez’s chances of sticking. But he will have to pitch well.

“I’m looking forward to having a great spring,” he said.