Nick Pivetta had retired 11 straight batters Monday night when he walked Johan Camargo on five pitches. Pivetta had already thrown 103 pitches and perhaps this was a chance for his night to end with one out in the seventh inning.
It was not a necessity to push Pivetta much further. He already had a fine night. But the Phillies did, anyway. And it worked. Pivetta picked up the next two outs — with great assistance from catcher Jorge Alfaro — and the Phillies went on to close out a 3-0 win over the first-place Braves at Citizens Bank Park.
The series opener was a great test for the Phillies, who moved just a half-game behind Atlanta. And it was a nice challenge for Pivetta, who pitched seven shutout innings and continued to display a sense of perseverance in the way he responded to the worst day of his career. He struck out seven, walked one, and allowed just four hits. He retired 12 of his final 13 batters, five via strikeouts.
Pivetta has allowed just one run with 25 strikeouts and two walks in his last 19 innings since he was yanked in the second against after giving up six runs against the Nationals on May 4. An embarrassing afternoon in Washington has seemed to propel Pivetta through three strong starts.
“Games like Washington are going to happen. It’s really what you do after that, you’re really going to find yourself,” Pivetta said. “It’s just going out there: What do I need to do? Having fun in the game still. We’re winning, playing great, just build off the energy that we have going on in here, it makes my life a lot easier I don’t have to think about a lot of things.”
The Phillies defense, which was sloppy over the weekend in St. Louis, made some smooth plays behind Pivetta. Maikel Franco ran across the infield, fielded a grounder near second base, and spun around before throwing to first. Rhys Hoskins made a diving catch in left field. And Alfaro made series of athletic plays.
Monday was the teams’ 10th meeting this season and the Braves had won six of the first nine. Manager Gabe Kapler said before the game that his team “prepared like animals.” The Phillies would do everything in their power, Kapler said, to win the next three games. Monday was a nice start.
Nick Williams, who started for the third time in four games, hit a solo homer in the fourth. The Phillies have homered in 16 straight games, which is tied for the second-longest stretch in franchise history. Aaron Altherr, whose playing time has been pinched by Williams, came off the bench for a two-run pinch-hit homer in the seventh after Scott Kingery started the rally by deciding on his own to drag a bunt single. Kapler could have to go back to an equal share in right after Altherr began to take the majority of the playing time. It’s a good problem to have, said Williams, who was Altherr’s biggest fan in the dugout during his home run.
“I told Zach Eflin that a homer would be great right now but Kingery’s on first and he can run, so a double would be nice, too,” Williams said. “But then I was like ‘Nah, nah, scratch that. It’s a triple or home run.’ The pitch was thrown and I saw his face and I said, ‘Homer.’ Pow. Homer. I went crazy. I didn’t even see where it landed because I went crazy.”
Seranthony Dominguez handled the eighth and allowed his first major-league hit after six hitless appearances. But the rookie retired Ronald Acuna Jr. and struck out Freddie Freeman. He tackled the biggest late-inning outs as Kapler continues to use Dominguez in the game’s most pivotal situations. Hector Neris, the former closer, returned to the ninth inning and retired the three batters he faced. This was the right time to return Neris to the ninth, Kapler said. But the Phillies still do not have a defined closer.
It is not yet June and divisional standings carry little weight. It’s “super early” for that, Williams said. But the series opener against the Braves still seemed to carry a little extra meaning. Both teams are young and exceeding expectations. And no one has exceeded expectations more than Pivetta and Vince Velasquez, who will start Tuesday night. Monday was a reminder of why the Phillies covet Pivetta. He recorded 13 swings and misses. He worked a high pitch count in the first few innings before he settled down. He did not throw his change-up until the seventh inning and when he did, the pitch caught the Braves off-guard. His fastball touched 98. And he has proved that he can handle adversity.
The bit of adversity Pivetta seemed to face after walking Camargo would not last. Alfaro caught Camargo stealing to pick up the inning’s second out. That made life easier, Pivetta said. He needed just one more out to finish his night on his own terms. Dansby Swanson chopped a grounder in front of the plate, Alfaro charged to grab it and spun as he threw to first base to nab Swanson. It was a phenomenal play and the kind a team needs when it’s clinging to a one-run lead against a first-place club. And it was the kind of play Pivetta deserved.
“We’ve talked about establishing a track record and that track record becoming dependable,” Kapler said. “That’s what we’ve seen in the last couple of outings — him establishing who he is as a pitcher and a degree of dependability.”