Phillies

Phillies

The Phillies knew what they had with Jake Arrieta and Aaron Nola, Tommy Hunter and (injured) Pat Neshek, and to a lesser extent Hector Neris and Luis Garcia.

What they did not know entering the season was how Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez would pitch, or how the end of the bullpen would shake out.

With 21 games in the books, they've received key contributions from several emerging pitchers and that is a major reason why they're 14-7 despite a .231 team batting average

Pivetta had another strong start Sunday, making one mistake and limiting the Pirates to two runs over 6⅓ innings. In five starts, he has a 2.57 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, and he's struck out 28 batters in 28 innings while walking four.

Over his last eight starts dating back to last September, Pivetta has an ERA of 2.00 on the dot.

Even the most optimistic Phillies observers couldn't have envisioned such a fast and consistent start for Pivetta in Year 2.

"He's still carrying over what he did in spring training, which is pitch to the top of the zone and the bottom of the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said after Sunday's win. "The north-south effect with his fastball-curveball combination. He's mixing in a slider. Right-handed hitters can't tell if it's a curveball or a slider. They're showing you that with their swings."

Pivetta misses a lot of bats with high fastballs that hitters just can't catch up to. He also has a sharp breaking ball, which was apparent from his first start last season. The main issue was his control. He had seven starts last season with four or more walks. So far in 2018, he's a different guy.

 

"I think we saw glimpses of it last year with a little bit less consistency," said Andrew Knapp, who has caught all five of Pivetta's starts. "Right now, he's really confident in what he's doing. It's kind of becoming an every-time-out thing where he's really pounding the strike zone and he's got four pitches he can throw in any count.

"The fastball is electric. When the other hitters feel the fastball, it opens up the off-speed."

Pivetta will probably not finish the season with an ERA under 3.00, but the Phillies aren't asking him to be an ace. They're asking him to be a consistent mid-rotation piece, and his upside could allow him to become much more than that.

It could also change the ceiling of the 2018 Phillies.

"I think it does. I think it does," Kapler said. "I think it's the emergence of Nick. I think it's the emergence of Velasquez. I think it's relievers we can go to that have sort of behaved like the guys you depend on every day in the seventh, eighth and ninth. 

"We have Garcia, (Adam) Morgan and Neris as the guys coming out of camp who we knew were going to perform in those situations. Now you have (Tommy) Hunter coming back. You've got [Pat Neshek] not that far away. And you have (Yacksel) Rios, (Victor) Arano and (Edubray) Ramos performing like this. It's very encouraging."

That's a pretty deep bullpen in addition to a solid rotation. Hunter made his Phillies debut Sunday and needed just eight pitches in a 1-2-3 eighth inning. His cutter, which he threw 20 percent more often last season than he did the prior three, will make him a weapon against left-handed batters.

As for Velasquez, he'll have a chance Tuesday to kick it up another notch against a very good Diamondbacks lineup that may get power-hitting lefty Jake Lamb back in time for the series.

It's still April, but the Phils have the chance to make a little statement with a series win over the 15-6 D-backs.

"It would be awesome," Kapler said, "for us to go out there and tackle Arizona the way we did Pittsburgh."