Phillies

Ben Lively states his case for spot on Phillies' pitching staff

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Ben Lively states his case for spot on Phillies' pitching staff

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CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies will be without Mark Leiter Jr.'s versatile arm for about six weeks. An MRI performed Monday on the pitcher's sore right forearm showed a strained flexor muscle.

Leiter had a good chance to make the opening day roster as a long reliever or fifth starter. With him out, the Phillies could be in need of a swingman.

Could Ben Lively be that guy?

"I can pitch anywhere," the competitive 26-year-old right-hander said. "I don't care. Wherever they want, I'll pitch."

Lively did nothing to hurt his chances of making the club as he turned in five shutout innings against the Toronto Blue Jays in a rain-shortened 2-0 win Tuesday afternoon. He allowed just three hits, walked none and struck out four. He was particularly impressive in the fourth inning, striking out Justin Smoak and retiring Russell Martin on a tapper back to the mound with runners on second and third.

"I just tried to bear down and stick to the game plan," Lively said. "There's too much technology around here now. We have all the heat maps and we talked about it before the game and I just stayed with it."

Lively made 15 starts with the big club last year and 10 of them were quality starts in which he went at least six innings and gave up three or fewer earned runs. Lively doesn't have power stuff. He gave up 9.1 hits per nine innings last season and struck out just 5.3 per nine. Management would love to see some improvement in those areas — i.e., more of what he displayed on Tuesday.

"Lively was strong today," manager Gabe Kapler said. "He came out and attacked the zone.

"One of the things that is important is that we see some swing and misses with Lives and we saw a couple of bat-missing moments today that were, to me, a big deal. He induces quick contact, which is important, but we also like to see the ability to miss bats and we saw that on a couple of occasions, (Curtis) Granderson being most notable."

Granderson struck out twice against Lively.

"We look at past tendencies from recent years," Lively said of his pregame study. "The main one we looked at today was Granderson. He has a low slugging percentage on the outer half (of the plate), so we pounded him on the outer half the whole time."

With Jerad Eickhoff headed to the disabled list and Nick Pivetta likely to join Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez in the starting rotation, Lively appears to be vying for the fifth starter's job with Zach Eflin and non-roster invite Drew Hutchison. But he and Hutchison also could be vying for a long man's job in the bullpen.

By mid-April, the Phillies will probably have an eight-man bullpen. But they could break with an extra reliever because they won't need a fifth starter until April 11.

However it shakes out, Lively did not hurt his chances of landing some role with his performance Tuesday.

Roster moves
The Phillies sent catcher Logan Moore, infielder Mitch Walding and outfielder Andrew Pullin to minor-league camp.

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 its 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 K's 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)