This game, like so many others, will be long forgotten by the time the Phillies and Atlanta Braves meet again near the end of September. By then, it will be crystal clear whether the young Atlanta Braves and the even younger Phillies were for real when they raced to the top of the National League East during the season’s first two months.
Gabe Kapler, for the record, believes he already knows the answer.
“Absolutely not,” the Phillies first-year manager said when asked if he’d be surprised if these two teams were still in contention for the division title when the summer is nearing its completion and the NFL season is in full swing.
That’s why Kapler thought Wednesday night’s 4-0 win over the Braves on a beautiful night at Citizens Bank Park had just a little more significance than the previous 46 games his team had played this season. The Phillies had already lost the first three series against the Braves and they did not want to have to sit on a fourth series loss for almost four months.
“This is a big game for us,” Kapler said without being asked. “I think it’s worth noting that we’re all thinking about it that way. There is nothing different about the way we come to the ballpark every day, but there is a heightened sense of urgency. Tonight’s game means a lot to us and I wanted to demonstrate that that’s the way we feel about it.”
When the manager chooses to reveal such feelings, it’s always nice when his team responds with a well-played game and victory. The Phillies did both, thanks to a strong start from Jake Arrieta, another fine relief performance from rookie Seranthony Dominguez and an opportunistic offense that relied on walks as much as hits.
The win left the Phillies a half-game out of first place, but really did not tell us anything about Kapler’s team that we did not already know.
We know, for instance, that almost every time Arrieta takes the mound that the Phillies have a chance to win and this was a game they were expected to win because the Braves were countering with 21-year-old lefty Luis Gohara, who had a 6.89 in four minor-league starts this season and was making his first big-league start of the season.
The offense did not respond with a breakout performance, but two of the four batters Gohara walked scored and the Phillies managed to scratch across another run in the fifth on an RBI double from Maikel Franco. Nick Williams added more insurance with an RBI double in the eighth, raising his pinch-hitting average to .444 with seven RBIs.
It was the second shutout of the series for the Phillies, who keep proving over and over again that they have enough pitching to be a contender. Arrieta, after starting four straight games the Phillies lost, including a couple he absolutely should have won, responded with 6.2 shutout innings. He allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out seven before giving way to Dominguez with runners at second and third with two out in the top of the seventh inning.
By now, you should know how the Dominguez part of the evening turned out. The rookie righthander, after falling behind 3-1 in the count to pinch-hitter Preston Tucker, recorded a strikeout on a 98-mph fastball to end the seventh before pitching a perfect eighth. In his first nine big-league innings, he has allowed one hit, two runners and struck out nine.
That’s the kind of relief that will keep a team in contention all season and he is not alone in that bullpen. Kapler is doing all he can to get Hector Neris back on track and it helped that he finished off the ninth without allowing a run.
Again, the Phillies have the pitching and they proved it in this series against a Braves team that can hit.
“That says a lot,” Kapler said. “Our pitching has been really strong. That’s a good baseball team. When we think about their lineup, we think about it as one of the best in baseball, if not the best in baseball right now. It’s a tough lineup to navigate through. So we view this as a challenge and any time you’re challenged your adrenaline gets going a little more. You get a little bit more excited, you get a little bit more focused.”
The Phillies had good reason to be excited after Wednesday night’s victory. They had finally taken two out of three games from the Braves and did so by blanking them twice. Now they’ll wait four months to play them again. If the two teams are still at the top of their division then, Gabe Kapler will not have to say a word about how big the games will be.