You had to search hard for it, but it was there, buried in the mess of the Phillies' 10-2 loss Sunday in the first game of their doubleheader against the Padres. If you want to believe that the Phillies will win the National League East and, upon qualifying for the playoffs, make some hay once they get there, the key to that hope was there at Citizens Bank Park to be found. Granted, it was hidden under 11 men who were left on base and 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position that didn't produce a hit or run and a dropped popup that led to the Padres rally that put the game out of reach. But still, it was there.
It was in the first and last numbers in starting pitcher Nick Pivetta's pitching line: 5 1/3 innings … 9 K's.
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To watch the Phillies each night and to peruse their aggregate team statistics this season is to wonder, often and with good reason, how they began Sunday in first place in their division. Among the NL's 15 teams, the Phils ranked 12th in batting average and slugging percentage, 11th in runs scored, and seventh in home runs. Even with all the pitches they see and all the walks they take, they have been a below-average offensive team, and their defense has been worse. They had committed 71 errors – the third-most in Major League Baseball – before the Padres' Christian Villanueva's hit a sickly little pop fly that second baseman Cesar Hernandez lost in the sun Sunday. And though fielding percentage can be an incomplete measure of a team's defensive effectiveness, the Phillies' mark (.980) and its ranking (second-worst in the majors) provided a relatively accurate representation of how they've performed.
The Phillies, so far anyway, have overcome those shortcomings, and they've done it for a pretty simple reason: Their pitchers, particularly their starters, strike out a lot of opposing batters. Ahead of Sunday, the Phillies fanned 9.08 hitters per nine innings, the sixth-highest rate in baseball. Look at their bullpen's individual K rates. Seranthony Dominguez: 11.5 per nine innings. Austin Davis: 11.8. Adam Morgan: 8.8. Even Hector Neris, for all his troubles: 12.3. Look at their starters. Zach Eflin: 8.8. Aaron Nola: 9.1. Vince Velasquez: 10.5. And at the top, after Sunday's Game 1, was Pivetta, at 10.8.
"The way he finishes hitters is, he steps on his pitches a little bit more. We've seen it from time to time. He executed some really good sliders today," said manager Gabe Kapler, who made it sound like Pivetta treats hitters and pitches the way Liam Neeson treats bad guys in the Taken films. "He had some great curveballs and a couple of really good high fastballs."
Pivetta's season-long numbers – a 6-8 record, a 4.78 earned-run average – aren't dazzling. But they're a stark improvement from his rookie season last year, and after a rough five weeks, he has been solid in his last two starts, though Kapler, as he tends to do, emphasized the good of Pivetta's outing Sunday over the less-good. Pivetta did give up eight hits and four earned runs, and he was his own worst enemy in the first inning, when he threw a bad 1-2 curveball that Freddy Galvis slapped into center field for a two-out, two-run single.
"It just popped out of his hand," catcher Andrew Knapp said, "a little too up for my liking, and Nick would say the same thing, especially with two strikes. You could bounce that in front of the plate. … With Nick, you do have a little more leeway because he does have wipeout stuff. You can maybe not go after a guy as much on 3-2 with something he can hit, knowing maybe you can get a strikeout on the next guy."
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That's a luxury that the Phillies' catchers, Knapp and Jorge Alfaro, have with any of the Phillies' starters, save Jake Arrieta: They can call pitches in pursuit of a strikeout, and there's a pretty good chance that Nola, Velasquez, Eflin, or Pivetta will get one. That ability, as much as anything, explains the Phillies' surprising and quick climb in the standings this season. It helps to neutralize the inconsistency of their offense, and by limiting the number of balls put in play, it gives their defense fewer chances to foul things up. The Phils' collective WAR (wins above replacement) was 19.8, sixth in the NL, and their whiff-inducing starting pitchers accounted for 11.8 of it, the most of any rotation in the league.
The July 31 trade deadline is next week, and perhaps general manager Matt Klentak will acquire a hitter and/or utility player who can improve the team's hitting or fielding or both. But even if Klentak does pull off that kind of deal, it's unlikely to be the decisive factor that pushes the Phillies into the postseason. What will get them there will be what has gotten them this far: One of their pitchers throws something that sends an opposing hitter back to his dugout with his bat in his hands. And then the pitcher does it again. And again. And again.