Phillies

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.

Still a Phillie, Cesar Hernandez earns skipper's respect as 'epitome of a winning player'

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Still a Phillie, Cesar Hernandez earns skipper's respect as 'epitome of a winning player'

Over the winter, two big questions hovered around Cesar Hernandez:

1. Would he be a Phillie on opening day?

2. Would he survive without Freddy Galvis?

On the threshold of Memorial Day, traditionally the first checkpoint of the baseball marathon, the answers are yes and yes.

And, oh yeah, the surprising Phillies have the third-best record in the National League at 28-19.

“I think we are where we are because of the consistent play of Cesar Hernandez in many ways,” first-year manager Gabe Kapler said. “He’s been that much of a steady rock.”

The Phillies’ ears have been open for trade offers on Hernandez the last two winters. Industry sources say the price has been high because the front office values Hernandez’s strong on-base skills. No team has met that price, and given the Phillies’ strong start — and Hernandez’s role in it — it’s difficult to imagine the team subtracting such an integral contributor this season. With Scott Kingery signed long term, the club would probably listen again on Hernandez next offseason, but for now he seems to be a glue player. And with him not slated to become a free agent until after the 2020 season, well, maybe Hernandez will be around for quite some time. Who knows? He certainly has the skills that this see-pitches, grind-out-at-bats, get-on-base front office wants to build around.

“I think industry-wide, Cesar’s contributions are underappreciated,” Kapler said. “I think he is the epitome of a winning player. He makes a baseball team better. The play at second base, the base running, the energy, the durability ...

“He makes our offense go. He goes up to lead off a game and we’re better because of the way he managed that at-bat. It happens every night. He never gives an at-bat away. He sees pitches. He goes 0-2 and we always feel like it’s going to somehow end up 3-2.”

On Wednesday, Hernandez knocked in a run and extended his on-base streak to 27 straight games in a 4-0 win that allowed the Phillies to take two of three from NL East rival Atlanta. The first-place Braves lead the Phils by a half game in the standings.

Hernandez also turned 28 on Wednesday, so it’s a good time to take stock in how far he has come since succeeding Chase Utley at second base during the 2015 season.

Since the start of 2016, Hernandez ranks fourth among major-league second basemen in on-base percentage (.374), second in walks (159), and sixth in batting average (.291), hits (360) and pitches per plate appearance (4.02). This season, he leads all big-league second basemen in on-base percentage (.385), walks (31) and pitches per plate appearance (4.43).

It seems as if Hernandez has been around forever — and for good reason. He signed as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in the summer of 2006, the same day the Phillies signed another Venezuelan infielder, Galvis. Though the two grew up several hours apart in their home country, they knew each other well as kids. They were frequent opponents in tournaments and would stay with each other’s family on trips to their respective hometowns. They were teammates for a couple of seasons in the minors and double-play partners in the majors the last three seasons.

While Hernandez was quiet and would only speak English, his second language, around those he trusted, Galvis was gregarious and comfortable speaking publicly in his second language. He emerged as a team leader his last couple of seasons with the Phillies and played stellar defense. Those qualities didn’t earn him a spot in the team’s future as he lacked the on-base skills the front office values. He was traded to San Diego in December.

Some wondered how Galvis’ departure would affect Hernandez. After all, Galvis always seemed to be the Batman and Hernandez the Robin in this relationship.

With the help of team translator Diego Ettedgui, Hernandez recently talked about that perception.

“Something that people need to understand, even though we were so close and played for the same team, at the end of the day we are different people,” Hernandez said. “We have different goals, different problems in life, different points of view.

“Deep down, I knew at some point I was going to have to do things on my own and I was mentally ready for that. Because sooner or later either he was going to stay and I was going to go, or he was going to go and I was going to stay. And who knows where I’m going to be next year. It’s baseball.

“You learn along the way in this game. I didn’t learn only from Freddy. I learned from Jimmy (Rollins). I Iearned from Chase. I picked their brains and watched them interact with others.”

Hernandez said he was not threatened when Kingery, whose best position is second base, received a six-year, $24 million contract extension in spring training, and his confident play supports that claim. But seeing players he once looked up to like Rollins and Utley, and those he played aside, like Galvis, get traded has given Hernandez perspective and opened his eyes to the business realities of baseball.

“I was very happy for Kingery,” Hernandez said. “I thought it was awesome that he got that contract. That’s what every player dreams about.

“As for what it means for my future, I haven’t given that a lot of thought. I know that I play for the Phillies and I also play for 29 other teams. They’re always watching, they’re always on the lookout, they always want players.

“Of course, something I would love is to be a Phillie forever. I’ve been part of this organization all my life. I feel comfortable here. So if I was to ever sign a contract here, I would love that. To be able to have a career like Jimmy or (Ryan) Howard, that would be fantastic.

“But if that’s not the case, I understand.”

Hernandez’s willingness to speak thoughtfully about his future showed a growing maturity. And so does this: He’s able to compartmentalize the now and the future. He’s willing to talk about the future occasionally. But his focus is on the now. Remember, he was in the organization when the guys he refers to — Rollins, Utley, Howard — were winning titles. He would like nothing more than to be the leadoff man on the team that breaks the Phillies’ six-year postseason drought.

“I think the rebuild is basically over,” Hernandez said. “We have some hungry players. I think it’s key for us to stay united with a positive atmosphere. If we keep playing the way we are, we can go far.”

Phillies' win over Braves wasn't just another game to Gabe Kapler

Phillies' win over Braves wasn't just another game to Gabe Kapler

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Pregame or postgame, before he's asked any questions, Gabe Kapler talks briefly about what's on his mind heading into or coming out of a contest.

On Wednesday, before any reporter had a chance to ask the generic, "So how big is this one?" question, Kapler offered this:

"This is a big game for us tonight, and I think it's worth noting that we're all thinking about it that way," he said three hours before the Phils and Braves played their rubber match. "There is a heightened sense of excitement, there's a heightened sense of urgency. Tonight's game means a lot to us. I wanted to demonstrate that that's the way we feel about it."

Kudos to Kapler for eschewing conventional coach-speak about each game carrying the same importance. In this case, what he said rang true.

It was true because the Braves have had the Phillies' number all season, winning each of the prior three series, and because these teams don't meet again for 102 games — the last week of September. The Phillies didn't want to sit around for four months thinking, "What do we have to do to beat these guys?"

On Wednesday, the Phils closed out a series win by beating the Braves at their own game, scoring all four runs with two outs against an Atlanta team that has been by far the best in the majors in that regard (see first take).

Dominance from Jake Arrieta and Seranthony Dominguez helped the Phils to this 4-0 win, their second shutout in three nights and sixth of the season.

"When (GM) Matt Klentak went out to get Jake Arrieta late (in free agency), the thought process was he's good all-around," Kapler began. "We've talked about his leadership characteristics, the way he's guided some of our young starting pitchers."

"But really the reason Matt went out and got him and why we were so happy to have him tonight is because he can go through a lineup like the Braves' — the best in the National League to date — three times.

"Never once did we feel like he wasn't in complete control of the game. And that's why you go out and get a big-game pitcher like that. Because he can step up in these enormous moments."

The quirks of the Phillies' early-season schedule resulted in Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez each facing the Braves four times in their first 45 games. Arrieta, meanwhile, hadn't faced the Braves until this game.

During his days with the Cubs, though, Arrieta dominated most of these Atlanta hitters. No Brave entered Wednesday's game with more than two hits off of him.

And so far, Arrieta is enjoying the pressure of close games at Citizens Bank Park. After this gem, he's 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA and 0.91 WHIP in five home starts.

He got some help from a couple friends. Jorge Alfaro nailed another base-stealer, Ender Inciarte again, with a perfect throw to second. If Alfaro hesitates even slightly or doesn't have pinpoint accuracy on that 90 mph throw, Inciarte extends his major-league lead in steals.

Instead, a fast runner was erased in a key situation. Kapler noted that in conversations with other teams, it's becoming clear to him that the league is noticing Alfaro's defense and game planning for it. Wouldn't be surprising to see teams stop running on him for a little while.

Dominguez, once again, was magnificent. It seems like the Phillies will save for him whichever situation involves the highest leverage, whether that's the seventh, eighth or ninth. The four consecutive outs Dominguez recorded in a row put his season numbers at 9 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 0 walks, 9 strikeouts. He's essentially pitched a one-hit shutout, and after Wednesday's game, he confessed that even he is a little surprised at how eye-popping his first month has been.

But as they say, it all begins with starting pitching, and starting pitching is what will keep the Phillies competitive moving forward. They're 11-5 since May 5, largely because the rotation has a MLB-best 1.59 ERA over those 16 games.

We've reached a point where we can't just blindly write off the first seven weeks of the season as a fluke. This Phillies team has enough talent offensively, in the rotation and bullpen to sustain winning ways.

After finally conquering the Braves in this fourth try, they'll also have some added swagger.

"I said before today's game that this game was different and I meant it," Kapler said. "It felt like it in the dugout, it felt like it in the ballpark and that was a special performance by Jake."