MILWAUKEE — Two weeks ago, the Phillies embarked on a 20-game stretch against a handful of the best teams in the National League, a stretch that would offer a read on the club’s legitimacy as a contender as the weather warmed and the division races became more defined.
The Phils are 13 games into that stretch. They have won eight of them to improve from seven games over .500 to a season-high 10 games over .500.
Is this team legit?
Ask the guy who put the club on his back Saturday and led a 7-2 win Saturday over the Milwaukee Brewers (see observations).
“We’re one of the best teams in baseball,” Jake Arrieta said after pitching eight bullpen-saving innings and striking out eight Brewers.
“We’re rolling and we feel good about where we’re at.”
The Phillies began this seven-game road trip with a win at Wrigley Field on Monday night. They lost the next two to the Cubs — one in harrowing, walk-off fashion — only to salvage a series split with a difficult win Thursday. They’ve followed it up with two wins in Milwaukee and have a chance to sweep the series on Sunday.
The Brewers hammered the Phillies in Philadelphia last week, but the Phils came back after that series and swept the Rockies at home. That feat illustrated the team’s resilience. So has this current three-game win streak following two tough losses against the Cubs.
“I think we just showed the rest of baseball that we're one of the best teams and we deserve to be in that category,” Arrieta said. “We showed it in Chicago. We probably could’ve won another one of the games there but to split a series with them at Wrigley and get the first two at this ballpark against one of the best teams in baseball, one of the best offenses in baseball, speaks volumes about the group we have.”
Memorial Day is considered the first checkpoint of the big-league season, the first time you can draw some meaning from the standings. The Phils lead the NL East. They are one of seven teams in the majors at least 10 games over .500.
“It's notable,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think what's more notable is this road trip, which we knew was going to be a major challenge. So we go into this last game of this series with a chance to sweep an excellent team and assured we're going to have a winning road trip. I think that is powerful. I think it's meaningful. Equally meaningful as where we are on Memorial Day is how we handled this road trip.”
The bullpen has sucked up a lot of innings recently. Entering Saturday’s game, it had logged 47 1/3 innings over 12 games, the third most in the big leagues over that span. The relievers needed a break and Arrieta gave them one Saturday. He had a live fastball — one of his best of the season — with movement. He kept his pitch count down and got 10 swinging strikes and 24 called strikes. Home plate umpire Mike Estabrook had a generous strike zone and Arrieta occasionally used it to his advantage in expanding the zone. He got a generous strike call on a 3-1 pitch against Lorenzo Cain with a run in and a runner on third with the game on the line in the eighth inning. Arrieta then retired Cain on a ground ball to end the inning one batter before he would probably have been lifted with Christian Yelich due up.
The Brewers were not happy with Estabrook’s work — manager Craig Counsell and outfielder Ryan Braun were both booted — but the Phillies did not complain.
“Jake was absolutely cognizant of getting in the zone and giving us length and it was exactly what our club needed,” Kapler said. “The bullpen needed it desperately and he was the right guy at the right time.”
The Phils hit four homers — they have five in the series — and two of them came in a three-run ninth. That cushion allowed closer Hector Neris a day off.
“We have a fresh, fully loaded bullpen — when I say fresh, I mean relatively speaking — heading into the final game of the series and then we have an off day the following day,” Kapler said. “So, we can be aggressive tomorrow.”
Said Arrieta: “Already winning a series against these guys with a shot to sweep them tomorrow is really good for our ball club.”
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