Phillies

Phillies bear down on 1st place behind Nick Pivetta's 11 Ks

Phillies bear down on 1st place behind Nick Pivetta's 11 Ks

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BALTIMORE — The Phillies are a quarter of the way into their season and eight games over .500 for the first time since the last time they made the postseason. That would be 2011 when Jimmy, Chase, Ryan and Cole still roamed Citizens Bank Park.

It’s way too early to anoint this team a firm contender, but not to soon to say things are moving in the right direction.

Big time.

“Look at the talent we have,” Nick Williams said after Wednesday’s 4-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards (see first take). “We have young guys that want to make an impact, not just for themselves but for the team. We love winning. Some of the guys in here were part of the team last year and it can be tough. We have this youth movement and we’re all loving it.”

Williams, 24, had an important two-out hit as the Phillies rallied for three runs, two with two outs, in the sixth inning to make a winner out of 25-year-old starter Nick Pivetta.

“That was the best I’ve seen him look,” manager Gabe Kapler said of Pivetta, who survived a first-inning homer en route to 11 strikeouts over seven innings of two-hit, one-walk ball.

Pivetta racked up 23 swinging strikes, 10 on a riding, power fastball up in the zone.

“He attacked the top of the zone with his fastball and the bottom of the zone with his breaking balls,” Kapler said. “The fastball up today was everything we had envisioned and imagined it could be and would be. He just had an amazing amount of confidence on the mound, delivering that pitch up in the zone.”

“He has the ability to go out and do that every time,” catcher Andrew Knapp offered. “He's become very consistent with all four of his pitches. The spin rate on the fastball, you just can't catch up to it at the top of the zone, so when he can do that and throw off-speed off of it, it's a really lethal combination.”

Starting pitching has been a strength most of the season. Lately it has gone to a new level with Pivetta, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta all shining. Of that group, only Arrieta is over 25.

Over the last nine games, the starters have given up just eight earned runs in 56 innings for a 1.29 ERA.

“We kind of feed off each other,” Pivetta said. “It’s fun. It’s fun baseball.”

Pivetta kept the Phillies in the game long enough until Cesar Hernandez could ignite a three-run rally with a leadoff homer against Andrew Cashner in the sixth. A two-out walk by Carlos Santana and a big hit by Williams after being down 0-2 set the table for two-out RBIs by Maikel Franco and Pedro Florimon (see highlights).

Luis Garcia got two huge outs to bail out Tommy Hunter in the eighth and Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris got the final three outs in the ninth (see story).

And so the Phillies head to St. Louis for four games. They are 24-16 and just an Atlanta loss on Wednesday night away from owning a share of first place in the NL East. The starting pitching has been stellar. The bullpen has more often than not been strong. The hitting has been timely. It sure was Wednesday. It’s going to take more of the above to say the Phils are really contenders, but a quarter of the way into the season — and after 96 losses last year — things are most definitely moving in the right direction.

Phillies ready for a 1st-place showdown with Braves

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Phillies ready for a 1st-place showdown with Braves

ST. LOUIS — The Phillies have been chasing the first-place Atlanta Braves all month in the National League East standings and never has the deficit been more than 1½ games.

That is the difference between the two teams as they get set to open their fourth series of the still young season Monday night in Philadelphia.

It is perhaps the biggest series the Phillies have hosted at Citizens Bank Park since the days of Jimmy, Chase, Ryan, Cole, Big Chuck and 257 straight sellouts.

“It should be fun,” said pitcher Jake Arrieta, who grew accustomed to playing in big series during his time with the Chicago Cubs.

The Phillies are expecting crowds between 22,000 and 27,000 for the series. 

A good showing over the next three days and those crowds will grow.

“We’re prepared and focused,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “There is a lot of adrenaline going into that series. We feel like we match up very well against them and more than anything else we’re not going to get outworked or prepared.

“We always want to see our home fans out there supporting us and since the beginning of the season since we first stepped foot in CBP, we’ve had that support and we expect nothing less going forward.”

The Phillies have had several chances in the last week to overtake the Braves in the standings. Each time the Braves have stumbled, the Phillies have stumbled. The Phils entered Sunday’s game against the Cardinals a half-game behind the Braves. The Phillies lost and the Braves rallied for six runs in the ninth to beat Miami.

So far this season, the Braves have been the Phillies’ nemesis. Atlanta has won six of the nine meetings. The Phillies have built much of their 26-18 record by going 18-4 against teams from outside the NL East. Meanwhile, against the division, they are just 8-14. That will have to change if the Phillies want to stay in the race.

The Phils have hit just .210 as a team in nine games against Atlanta this season and averaged just 3.3 runs per game. Phillies pitching has a 5.47 ERA against the Braves.

“We haven’t necessarily played the Braves all that well this year,” Arrieta said. “You just have to learn from that.

“It all comes down to how well your starter pitches that day. If you come out and give up four in the first — I’m not saying you can’t win that game but it makes it a lot more difficult. So the emphasis has to be on starting pitching, especially early in the game to set the tone. You put two or three zeroes up there in the first few innings and you can start to control the ball game. We take pride in setting the tone and keeping the game close.”

Arrieta gave the series its proper importance but mixed in some perspective.

“They’re all big,” he said. “It can come down to the last game of the season whether you get in the playoffs, so they’re all big, especially in the division.”

The Phils have not had a winning season since 2011, the last time they made the playoffs. Last year, they went 66-96.

Arrieta is not surprised the Phils, with one of the majors’ youngest rosters, have gotten off to such a good start this season.

“I think our young guys know it, but at the same time, I think they’re somewhat oblivious to it, which is a good thing,” he said. “You don’t want to look at the standings every single day. Sometimes it’s good to evaluate your season month by month. Try to have a winning month, turn the page. I think that’s the measure of a good team. Have a winning April, have a winning May and at the end of the year, you look up and you’re 25 games over .500.

“We have to put the standings out of sight, out of mind and focus on preparing, executing quality pitches, having good at-bats and winning that day. Let the wins stack up and assess at end of the month.”

Though there is a lot of season left — and the Nationals have only begun to awaken — the Phils could sure use some wins against Atlanta.

The biggest series at Citizens Bank Park since the Glory Days begins Monday night.

Here are the pitching matchups for the series:

Monday night – RHP Nick Pivetta (3-2, 3.72) vs. RHP Mike Foltynewicz (3-2, 2.87)

Tuesday night – RHP Vince Velasquez (4-4, 4.37) vs. RHP Brandon McCarthy (4-2, 5.05)

Wednesday night – RHP Jake Arrieta (3-2, 2.82) vs. LHP Luiz Gohara (0-0, 1.29)

Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola's streaks end as Flaherty stifles Phillies' bats

Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola's streaks end as Flaherty stifles Phillies' bats

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ST. LOUIS — The Phillies watched video, studied data and scouting reports. They still had no answers for St. Louis Cardinals rookie right-hander Jack Flaherty on Sunday afternoon.

OK, they had one answer as Rhys Hoskins hit just his second homer in the last 24 games in the fourth inning to give the Phillies a brief lead. Otherwise, the day belonged to Flaherty and the Cardinals, who beat the Phillies, 5-1, at Busch Stadium as the teams split a four-game series (see first take). The Phillies are 26-18, 1½ games behind first-place Atlanta in the National League East.

Flaherty, 22, was selected 34th overall in the 2014 draft, 27 slots behind Aaron Nola. In his ninth big-league start, he out-pitched the Phillies’ ace for his first big-league win. Flaherty threw a full mix of pitches but featured mostly a fastball and slider. He struck out 13 in 7 2/3 innings. He threw 120 pitches, gave up two hits and a walk and got 24 swinging strikes, a dozen on sliders.

“He was tremendous today,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the other guy. He located his fastball and slider and kept us off balance with a really gritty performance.

“I think it always matters when a team has a lack of familiarity with a pitcher, but we do our homework. We had all watched him extensively. We knew what he had and what he brought to the table. We knew his minor-league history. So we were prepared and he just beat us. He was good today.”

Carlos Santana concurred.

“He had very good command of the breaking ball,” Santana said. “It was the first time we’d seen him. He threw great. We’ll see what happens the next time we face him.”

A couple of notable Phillies’ streaks were halted. Nola’s string of 13 straight starts (dating to Sept. 7) of allowing no more than three earned runs in a start ended as he gave up seven hits and four runs in six innings.

Odubel Herrera’s streak of reaching base safely died at 45 consecutive games, 11 shy of Mike Schmidt’s team record. Ted Williams owns the all-time record at 84. Joe DiMaggio ranks second at 74 and Williams is also third at 73.

“What an incredible accomplishment,” Kapler said. “I was looking at the list before the game of guys who’ve reached base in that vicinity and, wow, there’s some Hall of Famers and perennial All-Stars on that list so he’s in good company. It’s nice to still have somebody on our club with an on-base streak in Cesar Hernandez (24), so now we shift our attention to rooting for that to keep going.”

Herrera still leads the National League in hitting at .344.

“That’s part of the game,” he said. “At some point, the streak had to end. Now I’m looking forward to starting a new streak.”

Though he left several balls over the plate that were hit well, Nola did not pitch badly. He had little margin for error given the way Flaherty pitched and he was not helped by his defense. Santana made a costly throwing error for the second straight game. The Phils made six errors in the series. They will have to clean that up in their showdown with Atlanta for first place in the NL East. The series begins Monday night at Citizens Bank Park (see story)

“We can play a tighter brand of defense,” Kapler said. “We are a good, athletic defense. We can pick it up a notch. We’re better than we showed out there on defense in general.”