Nick Williams hit a clutch homer, Gabe Kapler called on a new closer, and the Phillies stayed within a game of first place in the NL East on Sunday with a big win over the Mets. They went 5-1 during the homestand behind some excellent starting pitching. They will open a two-game series Tuesday in Baltimore against a last-place Orioles team. It's the middle of May, and the Phillies seem to be on a roll.
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Aaron Nola gave the Phillies six strong innings Sunday and lowered his ERA to 1.99 after eight starts. In his last three starts, Nola has allowed just two earned runs over 20 1/3 innings, a 0.89 ERA in that stretch, with 23 strikeouts and just three walks. He has been excellent, and as Gabe Kapler said Sunday, it's just "Noles being Noles."
"We have a top-10 pitcher in baseball, and we need to think about him in that way," Kapler said. "The bar is super high every time Noles goes out there. That doesn't mean that he is not going to have rough starts. He is human just like anybody else. You can't help but expect greatness out of him because that's what we see on a regular basis and that's what you've seen dating back to last year."
Nola has elevated himself this season to an elite level. His ERA ranks sixth among all starters, he has the second-most wins with six, his WHIP (0.99) is the 13th best, and he has registered the fourth-most ground balls. He has pitched at least six innings in each of his last 20 home starts, joining Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee as the only pitchers to do that at Citizens Bank Park. And Sunday was not even one of his better starts. But he battled. He labored in the first inning and loaded the bases without allowing a run. He produced fewer swings and misses but was able to log short innings and log six innings.
The performance was just another strong day from the Phillies starters, as they have a 1.99 ERA in 11 games this month and nine of those 11 games have featured at most one earned run. You won't find many better pitching tandems through the first six weeks than Nola and Jake Arrieta.
"That's pretty cool that he has that kind of confidence in me," Nola said after being told that Kapler sees him as a top-10 pitcher. "I'm just trying to do my part and go out and try to help the team win the best I can. That's all I can do. It's not really about me. It's about winning as a whole, as a team."
Gabe Kapler called on Edubray Ramos to close out Sunday's win instead of Hector Neris as the Phillies no longer have a set closer. This is the way Kapler has longed to manage his bullpen. Neris' struggles allowed him the chance to do so. The ninth inning will be his experiment.
The ninth inning is different, Bob Brookover writes. Gabe Kapler said managing the back of the bullpen is "an awesome challenge" and he seems committed to using a rotating cast of pitchers to record the final three outs. And Brooky hopes that Hector Neris finds himself in that mix because the pitcher "proved that he can, and at some point he deserves the chance to prove it again."
Nick Williams came through with a pinch-hit homer and seems to be adjusting well to his role as a reserve. His seven pinch hits this season are the second most in the majors. He has started just three of the last 14 games. The situation, Williams said, has helped him mature.
Today: Phillies are off.
Tomorrow: Nick Pivetta starts opener in Baltimore, 7:05 p.m.
Wednesday: Vince Velasquez faces the O's, 12:35 p.m.
Thursday: Phillies open a four-game series in St. Louis, 7:15 p.m.
A win Tuesday against the Orioles would give the Phillies a .600 winning percentage (24-16) through 40 games. It would be their best start after 40 games since 2011, when they started the season with a 25-15 record (.625). They were 15-25 at that mark last season. It's been quite a turnaround.