The Phillies' bullpen has taken an even bigger beating this season from the home fans than it has from opposing teams. Weekends like this, though, will go a long way in soothing the hard feelings and eliminating some scrutiny.
Simply put, the Phils' bullpen was amazing Saturday and Sunday, allowing one run in 15 innings with every one of those innings representing a high-leverage situation. They won both games over the Nationals by one run, with Sunday's key blow coming in the 13th inning on Andrew Knapp's walk-off home run for a 4-3 victory (see first take).
Sunday was the first game in Phillies history in which eight different relievers made a scoreless appearance. One of them wasn't even a reliever.
Nick Pivetta talked his way into entering the game in the top of the 13th. Gabe Kapler repeatedly asked him if he was sure and Pivetta kept saying yes. It was, after all, just two days after Pivetta allowed seven runs in 1⅔ innings in a start against Washington.
Sunday was Pivetta's scheduled day to throw a side session, so instead of that, he picked up a win over a division rival. He came out throwing gas, hitting 98 mph on the radar gun in the last scoreless frame the Phillies needed.
Knapp pinch-hit for Pivetta in the bottom half so if he didn't hit that walk-off homer, the Phils would have been forced to use infielder Jesmuel Valentin to pitch the 14th inning of a tie game.
Let's just say everyone involved is relieved it didn't come to that.
"No offense to Val, but I really don't want to see him pitch that game," Jake Arrieta said.
Kapler couldn't talk enough about Pivetta.
"He asked every couple minutes if he could go down to the bullpen," the manager said. "We thought about that decision long and hard. He wanted the opportunity bad. I asked him and pushed him to make sure this was something he was going to fight for and he did. And then when he came off the field, he suggested he could give us more. Nick was the absolute team player today.
"Our bullpen has been the subject of the spotlight all season long and it was spectacular today."
After pitching seven innings Saturday, the Phillies used their relievers for eight innings Sunday. They needed to because their only prime run-scoring opportunity against Gio Gonzalez came in the fifth inning. For the first time all afternoon, they had a runner in scoring position. For the first time all afternoon, they had multiple runners on base. Down 3-0, why bat Arrieta there? Kapler pinch-hit with Carlos Santana, who walked, and the Phils ended up scoring three runs to tie the game.
It was another move that Kapler would have been lambasted for if it didn't work out. But the bullpen deserves credit when it holds up, and the manager deserves credit when he makes the correct call.
"You're running out of outs," Kapler said. "You're down. They have a great closer at the back end. You just don't have that many opportunities to score in a baseball game, so you have to capitalize when you have that opportunity. It's not always going to work out. We are going to pinch-hit for a starting pitcher early in the game and somebody is going to bang into a double play. This time, he drew a walk and we scored runs."
This win puts the Phillies at 45-37 and three games ahead of Washington. More importantly, it ends the arduous, much-talked-about stretch of games against top competition.
Now, the Phils get a chance to feast on some putrid teams before the All-Star break: the Orioles, Marlins, Mets and fading Pirates. They still have to take care of business by actually showing up and winning these games, but after weeks of playing competitive baseball and hanging with some of the game's best teams, the confidence level should be high.
"A win like that, especially against Washington, is huge for our season right now," Knapp said.
"It shows we're here to stay. A lot of games left and we've got to keep playing well, but we're up there with a lot of those teams."