The Phillies, once they learned their first Sunday game of the season would be pushed to prime-time on national television, began to rethink their rotation.
Aaron Nola, of course, would start on opening day. That was obvious. But who was best equipped, the Phillies wondered, for the spotlight that came with ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. That question ultimately led the Phillies to Jake Arrieta, who delivered under the spotlight but in a different style than the Phillies may have expected.
Arrieta did not have his best command but still gutted out six innings in a 5-1 win over the Braves. The Phillies shuffled their rotation by pitching Nick Pivetta on Saturday to allow Arrieta to start Sunday. Arrieta allowed just one run on three hits and struck out six. But he walked six batters and just 55 of his 104 pitches were strikes.
The conditions were not ideal as the flags in the outfield whipped on a chilly night. Arrieta said he had trouble getting a grip and the baseball felt more like a cue ball. Arrieta may not have dominated under the bright spotlight, but he gave the Phillies what they needed.
“The moral of tonight was that it was tough for everybody out there on the hill,” Arrieta said. “Throwing strikes for me was tough with my secondary stuff, even my sinker at times. The ball was moving all over the place. The wind was moving one way and I’m trying to throw the ball in a certain spot and I’m having a tough job doing that. I was able to grind out the outing tonight and keep my team in the game.”
Arrieta worked this offseason on refining his delivery as he wanted to rediscover the arm slot he had so much success with during his time with the Cubs. The change is to allow Arrieta’s pitches to move more vertically and less horizontally. Arrieta believed during spring training that he made progress with his mechanical change, but it was difficult to glean anything definitive from his first start of the season.
“Jake got more and more efficient as the game went on. He was really close,” manager Gabe Kapler said. "And pitching coach Chris Young identified it on the bench. Jake had his vertical movement. And when he has his vertical movement, the ball does not get squared up very often. He said he was very, very close. I trust Chris’ opinion. Sure enough, he found his rhythm. He found his efficiency and grinded his way through a very, very good outing for us. "
Kapler could have lifted Arrieta after five laborious innings when the pitcher was slated to lead off the bottom of the fifth. But the manager allowed Arrieta to bat. And he rewarded the decision with an 11-pitch battle against Braves starter Kyle Wright. Arrieta ultimately lined out to center, but Wright’s pitch count spiked and he faced just two more batters.
The at-bat, Kapler said, was “pretty cool” and the manager believed it set the tone for a two-run inning. Arrieta did his job. He may not have had his best stuff, but he had enough under the bright lights.
“Rarely do you expect to do a lot of damage as a pitcher. You just want to be a tough out and have the next guy come up,” Arrieta said. “I had six walks, so it was nice to see them cheering for me at least a little bit. It was cool. It’s one of those fun things were you get locked in and try to put a good swing on it.”