Big games? Jake Arrieta has pitched in a few.
Arrieta started the National League wild-card game in 2015 and tossed a five-hit shutout for the Chicago Cubs. A year later, with the Sons of Theo Epstein facing elimination, Arrieta took the ball in Game 6 of the World Series and beat the Cleveland Indians. And he kept the Cubs alive last season, too, in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.
Those were truly big games. A Wednesday night in the middle of May? Not as much.
But in the context of the Phillies universe, where not much meaningful baseball has been played in seven years, manager Gabe Kapler’s pregame exuberance that a rubber match against the division-leading Atlanta Braves qualified as “a big game for us” somehow seemed understandable.
“No question about it,” Arrieta said. “That was our opportunity to seal our first series win against those guys.”
Leave it to Arrieta, then, to deliver the goods. The Phillies’ lone experienced big-game pitcher blanked the Braves for 6 2/3 innings in a 4-0 win that gave them a series victory and pushed them back to within a half-game of the top spot in the NL East.
“All we want is first place, and we know that we have to compete for it,” catcher Jorge Alfaro said. “Everybody can see we’re going out there to try to win as many games as we can and compete for that first place.”
Arrieta gave up two hits in each of the first two innings and lived to tell about it. From there, he cruised. He struck out the heart of the Braves order — Ronald Acuna Jr., Freddie Freeman, and Nick Markakis — in the third inning and retired 15 of 16 batters between Johan Camargo’s second-inning single and a seventh-inning single by Ender Inciarte.
The Phillies, meanwhile, scratched out enough offense. There were RBI doubles by Maikel Franco in the fifth inning and Nick Williams in the eighth. In the third, the Phils scored a run without hitting the ball out of the infield. And to continue with the theme of the day, Carlos Santana’s RBI dribbler up the third-base line with the bases loaded was reminiscent of Carlos Ruiz’s winning hit in Game 3 of the World Series in 2008, a time when South Philly hosted big games every autumn.
Kapler said he could sense that his young players had a little extra energy to take a series from the Braves, who won seven of the season’s first 11 meetings between the teams. It’s not even Memorial Day, but the Phillies won’t see the Braves again until Sept. 20. This was a chance to give their rivals something to remember them by during the long summer.
“Sometimes you walk into the room and say, ‘This feels a little different,’ ” Kapler said. “When the players started spilling in, it felt like there was a lot of energy. There was a lot of noise in the clubhouse.”
And when it was over, the Phillies marked the win with their usual fog machine, laser lights, and club music.
“[The Braves] have played us tough all year,” Arrieta said. “They’ve played some really good baseball. We’re a half-game back. It’s shaping up to be a really good division, so we’re going to have to continue to play good ball and that’s what we expect to do.”
The best way to do that, as Arrieta can attest, is to continue to get shutdown starting pitching. The Phillies held the Braves to three runs, only one of which was earned, in the three games. Arrieta’s gem lowered the rotation’s ERA to 3.27.
More than anything, the rotation is the reason the Phils are 28-19, their best start since the 102-win 2011 season. It’s also why Kapler looked at his crystal ball Wednesday and predicted his team will still be in playoff contention when it sees the Braves again on Sept. 20.
And then, there will be plenty of big games to be played.