BALTIMORE — The last three pitches thrown by Nick Pivetta here Wednesday were, in succession, a 95-mph fastball, a 79-mph curveball and an 82-mph slider. And after swinging through the slider to cap a 10-pitch strikeout, Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis took a few steps down the first-base line, removed his helmet and placed his hands on his head.
It was the look of defeat.
Pivetta has left a lot of hitters looking that way lately. And if you’re wondering whether these Phillies — now 24-16 after a 4-1 victory between the raindrops at Camden Yards — will be able to stay in contention through the summer and into September, think of Pivetta on days like this as a walking, talking, 6-foot-5 billboard stating that, in fact, they can.
“You have to have dominating stuff to dominate. He has dominant stuff, the kind of stuff that can wipe out the opposition,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said of Pivetta. “Today is one of those days that you can dream on, like what if he really puts it all together and is able to do this start in and start out? And we’re starting to see that consistency. A track record is beginning to develop, and once you have a track record, you have dependability, which is really exciting.”
Let’s stop here to touch on Kapler’s bullpen usage in the final two innings.
The Phillies grabbed the lead by scoring three runs in the sixth on a rally keyed by Cesar Hernandez’s solo homer and three consecutive singles by Nick Williams, Maikel Franco and Pedro Florimon. After Pivetta threw 99 pitches in seven strong innings, Kapler used four relievers to record the final six outs.
Edubray Ramos started the ninth inning and struck out two batters on six pitches before Kapler called on embattled closer Hector Neris for the final out.
“Hector matched up beautifully with Chris Davis,” Kapler said. “We wanted to bring him in and give him an opportunity to finish the game for us like we knew he could.”
Unconventional ninth inning aside, Pivetta — and the starting rotation in general — continues to be the story. Phillies starters have allowed three or fewer runs in nine consecutive games since Pivetta’s one-inning knockout May 4 in Washington.
In his two starts since then, Pivetta has allowed one run on six hits and one walk in 12 innings while racking up 18 strikeouts. He has given up fewer than three runs in six of his nine starts overall.
Facing an Orioles team that despite its miserable record (13-29) still has Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Mark Trumbo and Davis in the middle of the order, Pivetta gave up two hits and matched his career high of 11 strikeouts over seven innings.
Between Jones’ solo homer in the first inning and Davis’ one-out double in the fifth, Pivetta retired 12 batters in a row. He looked particularly strong in the seventh inning, touching 96 mph and striking out Schoop, Trumbo and Davis.
“It’s really fun when you have at-bats like that [against Davis], pitch to pitch in a battle with a guy like that to finish it off,” Pivetta said. “It’s satisfying.”
Pivetta was at his best when it came to pounding the top of the strike zone with mid-90s fastballs and working the bottom of the zone with breaking pitches.
“That was the best I’ve seen him look to date,” Kapler said.
Hyperbole? Hardly. Take it from catcher Andrew Knapp, who has been behind the plate for 15 of Pivetta’s 35 career starts.
“The combination of the offspeed in the zone and then the fastball at the top of the zone was definitely one of his best outings,” Knapp said. “I think he has the ability to go out and do that every time.”