ATLANTA — Pete Mackanin is playing favorites again.
"Well, my favorite players are (Aaron) Nola, (Pat) Neshek, (Howie) Kendrick and Odubel (Herrera)," the Phillies manager said after a 3-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park on Tuesday night (see Instant Replay).
The aforementioned four players all had a huge hand in the Phillies' fourth win in a row.
Yes, the team that on Friday night was beaten 10-0 in its 26th loss in 32 games has now won four games in a row. Who cares that the Phillies have beaten sub-.500 teams? They are the subbest of all .500 clubs with baseball's worst record at 21-35. They will take any win they can get.
The Phillies were an obscene 6-22 in the month of May and a lot of their problems stemmed from poor starting pitching. Phillies starters had a 6.55 ERA, by far the worst in the majors, in that month.
When the Phils get decent starting pitching, they have a chance.
Tuesday night, they got more than decent starting pitching. They got their best outing of the season as Nola delivered eight innings of one-run ball while throwing just 97 pitches. It was the first time all season that a Phillies starter lasted more than seven innings. That's good news because it happened, but sad news because it took 56 games to happen.
"It was great to see somebody go eight innings," Mackanin said. "He begged me to go back out for the ninth — he was begging me — and I decided against it at the last minute. The last two batters in that eighth inning hit the ball hard against him and I didn't want him to face the middle of the lineup for a fourth time. He did a great job."
Mackanin went to Hector Neris for the ninth, but the right-hander gave up two one-out hits and was hooked for Neshek.
Neshek then registered his first save in two seasons. He did it on nine pitches. He has pitched 22 innings this season and given up just two runs. The Phillies will miss him when he is traded to a contender in the coming weeks.
Nola, who turned 24 on Sunday, isn't going anywhere. He remains a key building block for the Phillies, even if he has been inconsistent this season.
Nola pitched poorly in his previous two starts, giving up nine runs in nine innings. He was hooked after three innings Wednesday in Miami as his ERA rose to 5.06. In the days after that start, Mackanin and pitching coach Bob McClure met with Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, who has also struggled this season while pitching to a 5.13 ERA in 11 starts.
"We challenged both of them to pitch the way they're capable of pitching," Mackanin said. "I just wanted to pose them a challenge and say, 'Let's go, wake up, you're better than this, we know you're better than this, start doing it.' Nola rose to it."
Eickhoff gets his chance to meet the same challenge as the Phils go for a fifth win in a row Wednesday night.
Could Nola's effort inspire Eickhoff?
"Without question," Mackanin said. "Those guys, I've said it all along, they're better than they've been pitching."
Nola mixed his pitches and used his changeup and curveball well. His strength was getting quick outs and having quick innings. The most pitches he threw in an inning was 17 and he had innings of nine, eight and seven pitches.
Did Mackanin's challenge have anything to do with Nola's success Tuesday night?
"Yeah, absolutely," Nola said. "Eickhoff and I knew what we needed to do. We just needed to execute our plan. Fortunately, it worked out tonight. For Pete and them to refresh our memory — it was needed."
Braves lefty Jaime Garcia was also good. He held the Phillies' bats hitless for the first 3 2/3 innings before Kendrick evened the score with a solo homer in the fourth. Two innings later, the Phillies rallied for a pair of runs on back-to-back doubles by Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera. Kendrick had a hit in the inning and the second run scored on a balk.
Herrera is en fuego. He has nine extra-base hits the last four games; seven of them are doubles.
Kendrick started in left field and had three hits.
Aaron Altherr, who had three hits, including a homer, and three RBIs in Monday night's win, played right field.
Absent was Michael Saunders, who is hitting .218 with a .652 OPS. Mackanin said he needs to continue to get Saunders at-bats, but they could be fewer and further between if Kendrick, Herrera and Altherr continue to produce.
"At this point, I've got to play those guys," Mackanin said.