Phillies

Aaron Nola sharp over 7 innings for Phillies in return from DL

Aaron Nola sharp over 7 innings for Phillies in return from DL

PITTSBURGH — Pitching in the majors for the first time since April 20, Aaron Nola was sharp Sunday in his return from the disabled list.

Nola allowed just one run over seven innings and it came on a bases-loaded hit by pitch of David Freese. On the very next pitch, he got John Jaso to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the threat. 

Nola became the first Phillies starting pitcher to complete seven innings since Vince Velasquez on May 6, and it was his first time going that deep into a game since May 20, 2016.

He allowed just four singles, walked two (one intentional) and struck out five.

The Phillies provided Nola no run support but the 1-0 loss Sunday to the Pirates was secondary to how he looked in his first start back from the DL stint that caused him to miss a month.

His velocity, which was up in April before he went on the DL with a lower back strain, reached as high as 95.5 mph and averaged 92.3. While velocity readings have been a bit up league-wide this season, Nola's fastball has indeed had some more noticeable oomph. 

He's thrown 13 pitches this season at 94 mph or faster. He had only two last season.

Nola was efficient all afternoon. He needed just 89 pitches over his seven innings and threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 27 batters.

It was a great sign for the Phillies, who badly need their starting rotation to get into a rhythm. With the staff now healthy, Pete Mackanin hopes they get into a groove.

"I'm remaining optimistic because I think we're better than our record," Mackanin said Saturday. "Now that we've got our starters every fifth day and we don't have these days off and the rain and the injuries to starters, I think we can hopefully get into a rhythm with the starters, which will help the bullpen."

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Phillies beat Braves behind strong games from Jake Arrieta, Jay Bruce, J.T. Realmuto

Updated, 10 p.m.

Now that is the version of Jake Arrieta the Phillies need, the kind that can solidify a rotation. 

Arrieta pitched a gem and the Phillies hit two homers in a four-run fourth inning to beat the Braves 5-0 in Saturday's series opener at Citizens Bank Park.

The win gets the Phillies to .500 at 4-4. The Braves are 9-6.

J.T. Realmuto and Jay Bruce both homered in the decisive fourth. Realmuto's was a bomb to the last row of seats in the first deck in left field. It was his fourth already this season, in 73 fewer plate appearances than it took him last year.

"He's really turned into a premium offensive player over the last couple years," Bruce said of his teammate.

Bruce's came on the first pitch against Braves right-hander Kyle Wright. He started in left and Andrew McCutchen was the DH. The Phils have benefitted from Bruce's extra bat in the lineup with a couple of homers.

Arrieta cruised

It was a strong outing from Arrieta, who was locked-in and efficient and sounded encouraged after the game. He put only two Braves on base over his first five innings on a pair of singles. He struck out six and his sinker sat 93-94 mph. 

Arrieta pitched out of a potential jam in his final inning, finding fortune in the form of a Dansby Swanson line drive right at shortstop Didi Gregorius, who threw to second to double off Adeiny Hechavarria.

Through two starts, Arrieta is 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA. 

"What I've seen in the first two starts is extremely impressive in its execution," manager Joe Girardi said of Arrieta after the game. "He was really sharp tonight again. It's really encouraging. I feel really good about what he's going to do."

Arrieta pitched through an elbow injury last summer. He did not have the proper feel of his breaking ball and it affected his entire repertoire. There were nights when he didn't seem to know where the ball was going. 

Different story so far in 2020.

“I have more weapons at my disposal than I’ve had the last couple years," Arrieta said. "I feel like I’m gonna be able to maintain the feel of my stuff deeper into games.”

Gotta love those three-run dingers

Bruce's three-run homer in the fourth inning was the Phillies' fourth in eight games this season. Realmuto has two; Bryce Harper and Bruce have one apiece.

The Phils have hit 12 homers in their eight games. They entered Saturday night ranked first in the majors in on-base percentage, sixth in slugging and fourth in OPS. The offense would be receiving more credit if it wasn't overshadowed by the bullpen's early-season meltdowns.

J.T. is on fire

An inning after hitting his fourth homer, Realmuto flew out to the scoreboard in right-center, just missing another one. He lined out to sharply to center in his final AB. Even the outs are crushed right now.

Realmuto has been the Phillies' best offensive player so far. They needed him to start fast and he has. Last season, Realmuto was still hitting in the .250s in July with an OPS in the mid-.700s. He drove the ball over his final 200 plate appearances to finish with a solid offensive year.

Over his last 55 games dating back to last July 27, Realmuto has hit .305/.356/.634 with 17 home runs and 46 RBI.

"J.T.'s super talented. He does so many things for this team," Girardi said. "As good as he is offensively, he puts his heart and his soul in defense and calling games. J.T.'s a player you don't have to worry about being prepared. That's what every manager wants.

"I hope he stays really hot for like three months."

Bullpen holds up again

Jose Alvarez, Tommy Hunter and Deolis Guerra combined for three scoreless innings and allowed just one baserunner. The Phillies' bullpen has allowed two runs in eight innings in its last two games, two steps in the right direction.

Before the game, pitching coach Bryan Price talked about the need for the "second layer" of Phillies relievers to step up with so many doubleheaders on the schedule.

Harper does it with defense

Harper, who reprioritized defense prior to a strong 2019, continues to impress in the field. He made this diving catch in the fifth inning Saturday. He also went 2 for 4 with a double.

The Phillies' defense has not been an issue so far. They've committed just three errors in eight games, none from their new left side of the infield. Jean Segura bobbled a hot shot to third base in the first inning but recovered to get Swanson by a step at first base. It was the kind of play that could have altered the game early if it wasn't made, especially ahead of Freddie Freeman.

Twin bill on Sundee

The Phillies play a seven-inning doubleheader against the Braves Sunday beginning at 1:05 p.m. Game 2 will begin 40 minutes after Game 1. 

Vince Velasquez will start in one of the games and top prospect Spencer Howard will make his MLB debut in the other.

The four-game wraparound series ends Monday night when Aaron Nola faces Atlanta.

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What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

What makes Spencer Howard such an exciting piece of Phillies' future?

Spencer Howard is coming. The Phillies said everything they could say Saturday without making it official that Howard, their top prospect, will start one of the two games of their doubleheader Sunday.

Manager Joe Girardi really left things up to interpretation before the Phillies' series opener against the Braves, saying the nod would go to a young right-hander with the initials S.H. A few minutes later, he said that he was "not ready to make an official announcement until tomorrow, but if nothing changes, you can expect it to be Spencer Howard."

Plenty of hype surrounds the 24-year-old Howard, the Phillies' second-round pick in 2017. He has the tools of an ace.

"Big fastball, really good slider-changeup combination, emerging curveball," pitching coach Bryan Price said Saturday in a 15-minute Zoom call that was almost entirely about Howard. "And he throws strikes, he competes well, controls the running game. He's a very polished young guy with a big arm. 

"Quite often when you find guys with velocity, it takes time for them to figure out command or how to sequence their pitches. I just think he's a polished kid. I think he's ready to come up and help us."

That description of the typical young pitcher with velocity who takes time to figure it out applies to the pitcher Howard is poised to eventually replace in the Phillies' rotation: Vince Velasquez. Velasquez, at 28, doesn't have much rope left. He has a 4.75 ERA in more than 100 appearances as a Phillie (93 starts). He's allowed 1.53 home runs per nine innings as a Phillie, easily the highest home run rate of any pitcher in Phillies history with as many innings.

The Phillies could still end up starting Velasquez throughout the 2020 season because they have six doubleheaders over the next six weeks, i.e. six instances when they'll need a sixth starting pitcher.

It will be interesting Sunday to compare and contrast Howard and Velasquez in the two starts. It would not be a surprise to see Howard strike out eight Braves over five scoreless innings. Nor would it be a surprise if he struggled in his first start against a potent big-league lineup.

"He has deception, he pitches with a high fastball but can also create good downward angle," Price said. "I think getting the first one under his belt — hopefully there are many more to come in Philadelphia — is something we're all excited to see."

Howard was a late bloomer. He did not start games until his junior season at Cal Poly. His freshman season, he was one of the last players to make the roster. In the span of just a few years, his velocity rose from the upper-80s to the 90s to the point that he touched 100 mph in the minors.

"One of the great things about the sport of baseball is that not everybody is a prodigy. Not everybody is Alex Rodriguez or Bryce Harper, on the map at 15, 16, 17 years old," Price said.

"I think in Spencer's case, he had to have that skill set in there. The aptitude and the feel. And so as the arm strength built, he had enough feel for pitching to make some really significant strides in a short period of time."

The next step: A start in South Philly against the NL East favorites.

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