Aaron Nola had his gem. He did not need CG – as in complete game -- next to his name. He and the Phillies had their win.
Joe Girardi absolutely, positively did the right thing in getting Nola out of Monday’s night game after eight innings and 89 pitches. He had a 12-run lead, for cryin' out loud. Why risk a one-hopper off the kneecap? Why not save a few bullets for his next outing against the hated Mets? Why risk sending him out for the ninth and having it turn into a 20-pitch inning? Why not get someone in that wretched bullpen a little work so that maybe they’ll be a little sharper down the line?
The Phillies pounded out 14 hits and bashed five homers in beating the Atlanta Braves, 13-8. In the big picture, it was a good win for the lads in red pinstripes. That’s two straight four-game splits against top teams (the Yankees were the other) for the Phillies in the last week. Eleven games into the 60-game sprint, the Phillies are 5-6 and Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are killing the ball. They both homered Monday night. They have combined for eight homers and 20 RBIs so far.
Despite all the good vibes provided by Nola and the bats, Monday night’s game left a sour aftertaste in the mouth because relievers Nick Pivetta and Trevor Kelley were tagged for seven runs (on seven hits, including two homers) in the top of the ninth.
This bedraggled bullpen can’t even close out a 13-1 game smoothly. Pivetta was charged with six of the seven runs and got just one out. Kelley gave up a two-run homer.
If you’re keeping track of the ugly numbers at home, the Phils’ bullpen has allowed 34 earned runs in 31 innings for a 9.87 ERA.
After the game, Harper was asked if the bullpen’s struggles put extra pressure on the offense.
“That’s a tough question,” he said. “I mean, I think as a team we have to be able to rely on our guys. We’re at the big-league level for a reason. Just like people rely on me each night not to go out there and punch out with the bases loaded, we have to be able to rely on the guys that are coming out of the bullpen and trust in those guys and give them the opportunity to do well -- to struggle, but to also do well.”
As Nola was putting the final brush strokes on his 10-K masterpiece in the eighth inning, Girardi telephoned the bullpen and spoke directly with Pivetta. It’s unusual to see a manager speak directly with a reliever, but Girardi wanted Pivetta to know why he was being used in a 12-run blowout.
“I thought it was important that he pitch tonight,” Girardi said. “So, it was, ‘You're going to throw one inning.' It was nothing really enlightening. But I just wanted to explain to him why I was bringing him in this game. Because he hasn't pitched for five days and I thought he needed to pitch. But I needed to save him for length as well, and with Nola going so well, there was only one inning to throw.”
Pitching in a blowout can adversely affect a pitcher’s concentration. There’s no clubhouse access for reporters because of COVID protocols so it wasn't possible to speak with Pivetta after the game. Girardi had to speak for the pitcher’s mindset.
“That’s frustrating for him because I believe he has the ability to get big outs for us,” Girardi said. "He was just up in the zone and that might be because of rust."
Pivetta had hoped to be in the starting rotation this season. He was beaten out by Vince Velasquez in summer camp. He has pitched 5 2/3 innings out of the bullpen and allowed 10 hits and 10 earned runs for a 15.88 ERA.
In a closer game, Nola would have been allowed to pitch the ninth. He had gas left in his tank.
Girardi gave his reasoning for going to the ‘pen after eight.
“I think we've seen the track record of pitchers since we've come back (from the COVID shutdown) -- how many people have gotten hurt,” he said. “It's the most up-downs that he's had. Eight innings. His high has been six. We weren't worried about the pitch count. Aaron did not want to come out. But sometimes I feel that it's my job to protect players from themselves, right? And I feel bad pulling him. I told him. I understand if he's upset with me. I'm OK with that. But the prize is not in the month of August. And we need him to be healthy. We don't need him to get fatigued. He'll come back on normal rest again.
“I'm frustrated for the guys that gave up the runs because we want them to contribute and we want them to get going. It does not dampen that we won the game, that Aaron pitched great, and we swung the bats extremely well.”
The win was much needed for Nola. He had gone nine starts, dating back almost a year, without a win. He struck out 12 and walked none against the Yankees his last time out but came away empty because the bats were quiet and the bullpen got bruised.
“Obviously, I wanted to (finish the game), he said. “I understand where they’re coming from, for sure. Putting that aside, a 13-1 ballgame, it was a good game by us. The hitters came out hot. I felt pretty good overall. That’s all that matters. My stuff was working tonight. All three of my pitches, I was throwing for strikes. I was getting early outs and getting ahead of guys. I’ll take that into my next start.
“I feel it would be a different conversation if it was a close game. I could see myself going out (for the ninth) if it was a close game. But we got a W that’s all that matters. I don’t really want to put all the emphasis on that. We split with the Braves. We’re going to take that into tomorrow. Every win we get is a plus.”