If the believers held up Nick Pivetta's 11-strikeout domination Wednesday in Baltimore as Exhibit A for why these Phillies might actually be for real, then surely Vince Velasquez's gem Thursday night in St. Louis served as Exhibit B. Velasquez blanked the Cardinals for 6 1/3 innings of a 6-2 victory that pushed the Phillies to nine games better than .500. And while Pivetta and Velasquez were supposed to represent the soft underbelly of a suspect rotation, the righthanders have combined for a 1.53 ERA, 39 strikeouts and eight walks in 29 1/3 innings over their last five starts.
"We've known both of those guys have elite stuff and elite bat-missing ability. It's been a matter of them doing it in games on a consistent basis, and for the most part, they've done that consistently," Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said earlier this week. "They're still young. They still have to continue making adjustments, like all of our young players do. But we've been encouraged by what we've seen thus far."
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We're not sure how many relief pitchers the Phillies need to screw in a lightbulb, but it sure does take a bullpen full of them to finish off a game, doesn't it? Wednesday, manager Gabe Kapler called on four relievers to get the final six outs, including two in a 1-2-3 ninth inning. On Thursday night, five relievers were used to record the last eight Cardinals outs.
That's "Bullpen by Gabe."
Hector Neris' recent struggles have given Kapler a reason to stop using him as a traditional closer. All along, though, the first-year manager wanted this type of bullpen, one devoid of roles and stocked with pitchers who are able and willing to pitch in any situation depending on which matchups are deemed most favorable. As a farm director with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Kapler stressed such flexibility. Like many of his philosophies, it's progressive and unconventional, and it probably wouldn't go over so well with a veteran closer who is used to getting three outs in the ninth inning.
"I personally believe that there is a mental toughness that comes along with a guy who can come to the ballpark every day and just be like, 'Use me however you want to use me. Put me in any situation. I'm game for anything,' " Kapler said this week. "That's a hard thing to do. We can't discount how important it is to recognize that these guys do have routines and they do have rhythms. For that reason, we move slowly and we think long about the decisions that we make."
But the Phillies' most experienced reliever is Tommy Hunter, who over the years has been used almost equally in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings. The others — from Neris, Edubray Ramos and Seranthony Dominguez to Luis Garcia, Yacksel Rios and lefty Adam Morgan — are new enough to relieving in the big leagues that specific roles might not be quite as ingrained. Kapler might be able to engender within them the flexibility that he values so highly.
And if not, well, it will still be entertaining to watch.
If Dominguez winds up as the closer, remember what happened Thursday night. He entered with two runners on, one out and the Phillies leading by one run in the seventh inning and recorded two enormous outs on eight pitches. Talk about a turning point, as Matt Breen writes.
Manny Machado is definitely on the Phillies' radar, and our Bob Brookover opines that now, not next winter, is the time to pursue the Orioles star shortstop. I agree, although I would contend that it's highly doubtful Machado will sign a long-term contract with free agency looming after the season. That said, the O's can't expect to get a haul of prospects in return for two months of Manny. I wonder if a top pitching prospect (Sixto Sanchez?) and shortstop J.P. Crawford would get it done.
Speaking of Crawford, he's moving closer to returning from a strained right forearm. Crawford is scheduled to begin a minor-league rehab assignment next week.
Meet Ramon Rosso, an unlikely Phillies prospect and the best pitcher in the low-A South Atlantic League so far this season.
Within our weekly minor-league notebook, a look at the solid pitching at low-A Lakewood.
Tonight: Nice pitching matchup of Jake Arrieta vs. Cardinals' Michael Wacha, 8:15 p.m.
Tomorrow: Zach Eflin makes his first start since May 7, 2:15 p.m.
Sunday: Aaron Nola starts the series finale in St. Louis, 2:15 p.m.
Monday: Phillies return home for a showdown with the Braves, 7:05 p.m.
There's a way to track almost everything in the Statcast era, and MLB revealed new metrics this week that offer more data on defensive positioning. We now know, for instance, that the Phillies' Odubel Herrera plays deeper than every other National League center fielder, with his average starting point of 325 feet from home plate. We also know that Carlos Santana sees a defensive shift in 85 percent of his at-bats, more than any other NL hitter and fifth most in the majors. Not exactly sure what to make of that information, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Question: Do you think the Phillies need a lefty starter to stay in it this year? Cole Hamels a possibility? — Frank, via e-mail
Answer: Thanks, Frank, for the question — and for reading Extra Innings. Personally, yes, I think the Phillies need a lefty in the rotation, mostly because of how much trouble lefties give two of their division rivals. The Nationals have a .662 OPS vs. lefty starters, and the Mets have a majors-worst .648 mark. What really matters, though, is what Kapler and Klentak think, and there's evidence to suggest they'd like to add a lefty. Kapler noted last weekend that it would've been nice to start a lefty against the Mets. A few days ago, Klentak acknowledged that "some lineups are more susceptible to lefthanded starters."