MIAMI — With an average age of 26 years and seven months, the Phillies have the youngest roster in the majors. Youth particularly stands out on the starting pitching staff. Vince Velasquez turned 26 last month. Aaron Nola turned 25 last month. Nick Pivetta is 25. Zach Eflin is 24.
None of these pitchers have ever performed in the crucible that is a pennant race. Of course, they are about to. With two games to play before the All-Star break, the Phillies are leading the National League East and when they come back from the break next week, the pennant race will be on.
That’s why Jake Arrieta is so important to this club. He is 32. He has won a Cy Young Award. He has pitched in pennant races and the World Series. The Phillies’ young staff, so far a great strength in this surprising season, is going to need his been-there-done-that guidance and production in the second half.
If Arrieta’s final start before the break was any indication, he’s ready to deliver.
The right-hander tossed seven shutout innings to lead a 2-0 win over the Miami Marlins on Friday night (see first take).
“What an incredible performance,” manager Gabe Kapler said of Arrieta’s work. “Jake's very aware. He understands what's going on around him. So he knows that our bullpen has been stressed. He knows that we don't have off days. He knows that we're inching toward the break. And he said, 'You can climb on my back.' I really believe that was what he demonstrated today. He wanted to reassure our team that we could ride him and we could depend on him. He was just that, a stable and strong force for us.”
The victory was the Phillies' 12th in the last 16 games as they improved to 53-40 — a season-best 13 games over .500 — and added a game to their lead over Altanta in the NL East. They lead the division by 1½ games. They are nine games into an 11-game road trip that will take them into the All-Star break. They are 6-3 on the trip with Nola and Eflin slated to pitch the final two games before the break.
Arrieta has pitched well in both of his starts on this trip. He pitched seven innings of two-run ball Saturday night in Pittsburgh.
The Phillies need him to continue to pitch this way, or, to use Kapler’s expression, put the team on his back every fifth day.
“I’m comfortable in that position,” Arrieta said. “It’s good for Vinnie, Pivetta, Nola, Eflin to see that. We’re trying to win this division. It’s a next-man-up kind of thing. Let’s have a nice outing and use that as momentum moving forward and have the next guy carry the torch and pass to the next guy. That’s how the best teams do it. They thrive off of their teammates' success. It’s a competition within the group, within the five of us, and we just want to keep it rolling.
“It’s our job to keep it close and give our offense the ability to put some runs on the board.”
The Phillies did not put a lot of runs on the board. Aaron Altherr, a right-handed bat, got a start against lefty Wei-Yin Chen and came through with an RBI double in the second inning. Maikel Franco swatted his third homer in six games to give the Phils some padding in the ninth.
Arrieta said he did not have his best stuff. He benefitted from two double plays and one of the best defensive plays the Phillies have turned all season. The play occurred in the sixth inning with the Phils up, 1-0. Altherr, who moments earlier had moved from center field to right field for defensive reasons, grabbed Derek Dietrich’s scorched liner off the wall and made a perfect relay throw to Scott Kingery. The Phillies shortstop then fired a strike to catcher Jorge Alfaro, who applied a quick tag on Cameron Maybin as he tried to score the tying run from first base.
Dietrich’s shot to right missed being a two-run homer by a couple of inches. Maybin did not slide. Sure, those two things went the Phillies’ way, but the defensive execution was perfect, and Arrieta, who had been thwarted by poor defense a number of times in previous starts, deserved it.
Arrieta got a good view of the play as he backed up home plate.
“I’m like, ‘This run is going to score. It’s going to be 1-1,'" Arrieta said. “You know, not a terrible spot to be, but you obviously don’t want that to take place. To have that point of view from where I was and to see it unfold like that — it’s a fraction of a fraction of a second that accounts for the guy being out or safe. Everything has to go right. Altherr has to play it off the wall well, make a nice throw to Kingery, who has to make a nice throw to Alfaro. Alfaro has to catch and tag in the same motion. So to be able to see that unfold was really cool.
“Not an easy play at all. That was huge.”