Phillies

Former Phillies setup man Ryan Madson plays key role in Nationals' win

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Former Phillies setup man Ryan Madson plays key role in Nationals' win

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WASHINGTON — It was a sight we'd seen before, Ryan Madson mowing down hitters in the eighth inning with a big fastball and a baffling changeup for one of the best teams in baseball.

Only this wasn't 2008 and Madson wasn't wearing a Phillies uniform.

Nine seasons after he helped the Phillies win the World Series as the bridge to Lidge, Madson, now 37, is back in the National League East pitching for the playoff-bound Washington Nationals. He got three big outs — two via strikeouts — in a one-run game in the eighth inning to help the Nats beat the Phillies, 4-3, on Thursday night (see observations).

The Nationals' magic number for clinching a fourth straight NL East title is down to four.

Madson joined the Nats in a July trade deadline deal with Oakland. Lefty closer Sean Doolittle also came over in that deal. The duo has been sensational. Doolittle racked up his 16th save in as many chances for the Nats on Thursday night. Madson has collected 12 scoreless innings for his new club. He has allowed six hits and a walk while registering 17 strikeouts. And he's still hitting 97 mph on the radar gun, just like he did in 2008 when he was the setup man for Brad Lidge.

"It's a big gift, a huge gift, coming over here," Madson said after the game. "I just feel very fortunate to have been pitching well enough to be invited over here."

Madson is a survivor. He left the Phillies as a free agent when the Phils signed Jonathan Papelbon to be their closer in November 2011. Shortly after that, Madson was beset by elbow problems and did not pitch in the majors for three seasons. He spent the 2014 season at home before signing with Kansas City in 2015 and helping the Royals win the World Series.

He will get a chance to win a third ring next month.

"My career could have been done very easily," he said. "Thankfully, I found some trainers that got me healthy and got me strong."

Madson said this Nationals team, which also features 2008 Phillies Jayson Werth and Joe Blanton, reminds him of that championship Phillies club.

"And the 2015 Royals," he said. "Any good team is going to have that vibe."

Madson was drafted by the Phillies in 1998. Nineteen years later, he finally pitched against them.

"Pretty crazy," he said. "Somebody just texted me and said that was the last team I hadn't pitched against. Now I've pitched against them all. I didn't even know it."

While he was on the mound, Madson felt no special sentiment pitching against his former team. But after the game ...

"I think it's been so long there was nothing really crazy about it, but after the game I did think about Larry Bowa being over there and I want to say hi to him tomorrow and give him a big hug," Madson said. "He had faith in me and brought me up from Triple A when I was a starter and made me a reliever. So him and Matt Stairs, of course. I need to say hi to them."

Bowa, now the Phillies' bench coach, was the team's manager when Madson came up in 2003. Stairs, now the Phils' hitting coach, was a teammate in 2008. He hit a pretty big home run in the NLCS, if you recall.

Madson worked with a one-run lead Thursday night after Phillies starter Aaron Nola and reliever Adam Morgan could not hold a two-run lead in the bottom of the sixth inning. Nola went 5 1/3 innings and gave up seven hits and three runs, one of which was unearned.

"It wasn't the best we've seen Nola," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He pitched well enough to win. We just didn't score enough."

Two weeks after saying he wanted to keep catcher Cameron Rupp with Nola, Mackanin used rookie Jorge Alfaro behind the plate.

"I just changed my mind," Mackanin said. "I want to see more of Alfaro and let these guys pitch to a different catcher."

Alfaro belted a home run in the third inning. Mackanin believes Alfaro has made strides defensively, though he was charged with a passed ball in the Nationals' three-run sixth.

Alfaro is out of minor-league options and could be the Phillies' primary catcher next season. He needs reps with Nola, the team's most dependable pitcher and a building block for the future.

"He's making a great impression," Mackanin said. "As I always say, everybody is auditioning all the time and he's having a very good audition."

As for Ryan Madson, he is long past the audition stage of his career. But nine years after helping the Phillies win the World Series, he's still going strong and has a chance to win another one in Washington.

Phillies learning how to win and Andrew Knapp has interesting reason why

Phillies learning how to win and Andrew Knapp has interesting reason why

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The Phillies have the look of a team learning how to win.

The rotation is thriving, the bullpen is getting better each game despite missing its two highest-priced arms, and the offense is alternating between putting up crooked numbers and doing just enough.

Friday's 2-1 win over the Pirates involved all three of those early-season themes: strong starting pitching, a bullpen that did its job, and timely hitting (see first take)

The Phillies are now 5-1 in one-run games, the best mark in the National League and second best in all of baseball, behind only the can't-lose Red Sox.

"I think it is an indication that a young team is coming together, that a young team believes in themselves when the game's on the line," manager Gabe Kapler said of the one-run wins.

"We've talked a lot in the clubhouse and in the dugout about how important it is for good teams to win one-run games. A couple things we talk about: one-run games and having big innings. We've done both of those things this season."

They sure have. On top of leading the NL in one-run wins, the Phillies also have 10 different innings this season with at least four runs. Entering Friday night, the entire rest of the National League had 56, which averages out to four per team.

Success or failure in one-run games is volatile and unpredictable. Teams that thrive one season sputter the next and vice versa.

But catcher Andrew Knapp had an interesting take on the early success in one-run games. The way he sees it, these habits were developed by this Phillies' core in the minor leagues. Remember, Double A Reading dominated when this core was there, and then Triple A Lehigh Valley did the same once the wave of promotions began.

"This group has won a lot of those games, even in the minor leagues. Playing together, we know how to win in a tough spot and stay in a game late," Knapp said. "For us, this is kind of something we've always done, but now we're doing it at the big-league level."

Two other fun Phillies stats to come out of Friday night:

• They've opened the season 7-1 at home for the first time since 1981.

• They've allowed one or no runs seven times now in just 19 games. Last season, it took exactly 80 games for them do it seven times.

Everything is going right for Phillies' rotation

Everything is going right for Phillies' rotation

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Knock on wood, spill some salt over your shoulder, enact whichever good-luck superstition you have. Because right now, everything is going right for the Phillies' starting rotation.

Through three starts, Ben Lively had experienced the worst results of the group, but he pitched very well Friday night and is showing some interesting signs in his second big-league season.

Lively allowed just one run to the Pirates over six innings, lowering the Phillies rotation's ERA to 2.67 since April 1. In just 19 games this season, the Phils have allowed one or no runs seven times already. Last season, it took 41 games just for them to do it once.

The Phils needed every bit of that run prevention in Friday's 2-1 win. Lively, Adam Morgan, Luis Garcia and Hector Neris shut the Pirates down, and Odubel Herrera tripled in Cesar Hernandez in the bottom of the eighth to untie the game and make the Phillies 12-7. 

They could have given Neris more breathing room, but with runners on the corners and one out in the eighth, both Rhys Hoskins and Herrera were caught stealing on the same play.

Lively has 21 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings, a big surprise given his lack of whiffs in the minors and his rate of 5.3 strikeouts per nine in the majors last season.

As for the rest of the rotation:

• Aaron Nola, who owns the lowest hard-hit contact rate in all of baseball (17.7 percent) looks like one of the best dozen starting pitchers in either league. He also seems poised to reach an even higher level in his fourth season.

• Jake Arrieta showed Cy Young stuff Thursday against the Pirates (see story), and through three starts he's 2-0 with a 2.04 ERA and .180 opponents' batting average. That early-season concern over his lack of swings and misses? Arrieta generated 14 swinging strikes against the Bucs with 10 just against his sinker — the most against his sinker in 56 starts.

• Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, the two wild cards entering the season, have combined for a 1.98 ERA and 0.88 WHIP with 38 strikeouts in 36 1/3 innings the last three cycles through the rotation.

"Wild card" is the operative term, because if that duo continues to pitch like this, the Phils will have a legit shot at one.

The strikeouts, the weak contact ... we're not dealing with smoke and mirrors here. We're seeing what happens when aces like Arrieta and Nola meet expectations and young guys like Pivetta and Velasquez execute with more consistency. If Lively can just give the Phils quality starts, look out.

And aside from Arrieta, the rest of the Phillies' rotation will earn just under $2.25 million this season combined. That may be the most important number of all.