Bryce Harper is one of the top candidates for the National League MVP award mostly because of his bat.
On Wednesday night, he used his throwing arm to add a little spice to his candidacy -- and keep his team within striking distance of the playoffs.
Harper cut down the potential tying run at the plate to end the bottom of the eighth inning as the Phillies hung on to beat the Baltimore Orioles, 4-3, in front of 18,133 at Citizens Bank Park.
Rookie Matt Vierling started at first base and had a big game for the Phils. He ignited a two-run rally in the bottom of the seventh and stole a hit from Ryan Mountcastle to open the eighth inning. The Orioles scored once in that inning to make it a one-run game. The defensive plays by Vierling and Harper mitigated the damage and were huge difference makers.
"We win by one run and he throws a guy out at the plate," said manager Joe Girardi, marveling at Harper's latest contribution. "That's a big run."
The Phillies were glad to see the Orioles leave town. They arrived with the worst record in the majors but played the Phillies tough. Or maybe the Phillies just played poorly. Yeah, there was a lot of that.
The Orioles (48-104) took the first game of the series, 2-0. The Phillies needed a walk-off, two-run triple from J.T. Realmuto to pull out Tuesday's game, 3-2, in 10 innings. Wednesday night's win was not easy. The Phillies did not put a run on the board until Andrew McCutchen smacked a two-run homer with two outs in the sixth.
"We won the series," Zack Wheeler said. "Maybe it wasn't as easy as we wanted it to be, but, hey, it's baseball. We got the win and that's all that matters."
Girardi echoed that.
"Every series is difficult, that's just the way it is at this time of year," he said. "You've got teams playing loose, young kids trying to prove themselves. They've got some guys over there who can swing the bat.
"Every game is a grind right now but when you're in it, that's a good thing and we're in it."
The Phillies are 78-74 with 10 games to play. Wednesday night's victory ensured they will remain three games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East, but time is running out. The Braves entered their game at Arizona on Wednesday night with a 79-70 record. The two teams open a three-game series Tuesday night in Atlanta.
Baltimore lefty Keegan Akin entered Wednesday night's series finale 2-10 with a 6.93 ERA in 89⅔ innings this season. He pitched a lot better than his record, but that was not a complete surprise because left-handed starters have given the Phillies trouble this season, especially recently with Rhys Hoskins out. The Phils entered the game 21-27 against left-handed starters, including 1-5 this month.
Akin sailed through the first five innings and the Orioles took a 1-0 lead against Wheeler in the top of the sixth. In the bottom of the inning, Akin gave up a one-out single to Harper and manager Brandon Hyde removed him at 90 pitches with two right-handed hitters, Realmuto and McCutchen, due up. Realmuto flied to center, but McCutchen kept the line moving with a two-run homer against right-hander Eric Hanhold.
The lead did not last long. Girardi pulled Wheeler after six innings and 97 pitches and Sam Coonrod gave up the tying run in the top of the seventh on a single, a walk, a wild pitch and a groundout. The wild pitch came on a very blockable ball in the dirt that went through Realmuto's legs. Realmuto also had a passed ball in the eighth inning that set up a run. His hands were sure moments later when he caught Harper's throw and tagged out Pedro Severino at the plate to preserve a one-run lead.
After giving up the lead in the seventh, the Phils got it back for good with two runs in the bottom of the inning. Vierling started the rally by legging out an infield hit and pinch-hitter Brad Miller followed with a double. Jean Segura broke the tie with a one-out sacrifice fly and Realmuto pushed across another run with a base hit up the middle after an intentional walk to Harper.
The fourth run was huge; the Phillies are 37-8 since July 1 when scoring four or more runs.
The Phillies' bullpen was thin with Archie Bradley and Hector Neris getting rest. Jose Alvarado, Cam Bedrosian and Ian Kennedy got the job done. Kennedy issued a pair of two-out walks in a nervous ninth before closing out the win for Alvarado.
Wheeler leads the majors with 206⅓ innings pitched and he has two huge starts remaining, including Tuesday night's series opener in Atlanta. Girardi is trying to keep his ace fresh -- at least as fresh as a workhorse can be at this time of year -- by watching his pitch counts, and Wheeler is cool with that.
"I want to keep pitching the rest of the season and hopefully into the playoffs," he said. "We're trying to be smart so I can keep going."
After three life-and-death struggles with the lowly Orioles, the Phils host another last-place club as the Pittsburgh Pirates come to town Thursday night for a four-game series. It's the Phillies' final home series of the season before heading to Atlanta for a series that they hope will carry a lot of meaning.
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