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Year of the Canon: Phillies 4, Pirates 2

Aaron Harang continued to turn solid pitching into dominant outcomes with the help of his own defense and the other team's too.

Rupp so quick basestealers never touch second.
Rupp so quick basestealers never touch second.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the game I expected the story-line to center on two pitchers far apart in age and experience but similar narratives for the last three seasons. But the game did not turn on their performances so much as it turned on defenses playing behind them. For the second consecutive night the Phillies defense, so often one more weak link in a plastic chain, keyed a victory.

The pitching matchup set Aaron Harang against Vance Worley. Both seemed barely worthy of MLB in 2013 and in 2014 unexpectedly revitalized their careers with new teams. Many keen baseball observers have been waiting for them to fall off a cliff again. Instead, they have stubbornly pitched anywhere from excellently to reliably, depending on your analytical perspective. Unlike those other keen observers, I believe these improvements are sustainable, albeit not at the high points either has shown over the last season and a fifth. Each has adjusted the pitches he throws and found corresponding success in limiting home runs and ratio-ing strikeouts to walks. Despite the decade between their ages, their recent baseball biographies have been oddly similar.

But their outings today were not similar. Before a lively and sparse CBP crowd, Harangatang (the misspelling conceals the insult) shut out the Pirates through 8 innings using 6 Ks and a couple of late double plays to prevent any of the 7 Pirates baserunners (5 H, 1 BB, 1HBP) from scoring. I would not call Harang's performance today dominant. He threw 23 pitches in a hard fought first inning in which Pirates batters fouled 14 pitches off. That's a lot of contact. And he had his fair share of hard hit balls at defenders and more than his fair share of excellent defensive plays to pick him up when he got into the slightest trouble. Nevertheless, he surrendered no home runs and allowed only two batters to reach without a hit, while striking out a handful. That's a decent formula for success. Harang continues to demonstrate to any competitive team—non-Nationals division—that he is better than at least one of its starters. (Harang for Swihart, amirite?)

For the other side, former Phillies fan favorite Vance Worley—aka The Vanimal, aka Vance Vance Revolution—struggled through a performance marred more by his defenders than his own pitching. In 4 innings Worley allowed 3 runs to score, 2 of them unearned and the other perhaps would not have scored but for the error prior. Moreover, the Phillies did not hit him all that hard. But defense and luck were not Worley's only weaknesss. While he walked just one batter, he struck out none. A strikeout here and there might have helped him escape his early jams. But he could not miss bats today and, as a result, he fell prey to the BABIP dragons. Where Harang survived his first inning of contact and settled into a long, effective outing, Worley never recovered even his limited ability to miss bats.

Still and all, this game was no blowout. In spite of 8 hits over 4 innings off Worley, alongside 2 errors and a walk, the Phillies scored only 3 runs against him. In fact, were it nor for some terrible defensive plays by the Pirates, the Phillies might not have scored any runs against Worley at all. In the bottom of the first Ben Revere started a rally by hitting a moderately difficult grounder up the middle that Neil Walker kicked, as if he meant to do it, over toward second base. Revere later scored on a Cesar Hernandez walk (he leads the team in walks, you know) after failing to score from second on a Ryan Howard single to right field. Grady Sizemore followed the walk with a single, driving in Galvis, who continues to play like the reincarnation of Tony Gwynn, Sr., from third. Fittingly, Ryan Howard did not score from second on the play because he is so very slow, and the Phillies would only score 2 runs that inning after an Odubel Herrera double play. If Walker had not kicked the first grounder, it is likely no runs would have scored because, assuming all else plays out the same way (yeah, yeah, questionable assumption), Howard's hit might have been an out into the shift, which was not in full force thanks to the runners on first and second rather than just first.

Later, in the third inning with the Phillies still up 2-0, the Pirates defense once again turned the hose on the run-scoring slip-and-slide. It began when Galvis hit a routine groundball to the 4-3 hole, only Pedro Alvarez moved away from first to field a ball that was clearly Neil Walker's and nobody could cover the bag in time to retire Galvis. Galvis would then advance to second on a ground out by Chase Utley (who...), fail to score from second on a Howard single, but score anyway thanks to an error by Jordy Mercer on a stung shot from Sizemore. Of course, since Ryan Howard is so very slow, he almost did not make it to second safely even after the error by Mercer.

Ryan Howard tacked on a final, totally earned run, when he blasted a high fastball from Radahames Liz into the rightfield seats. He knew it was gone and watched it fly. I like it when the Big Fella is confident in his contact. Tell me again why no AL team could use a power-hitting lefty for the second-half playoff run? AL GMs feast your eyes:

So, for at least five Pirates turns to bat the game was close and could easily turn from a 3-0 lead to a 4-3 deficit. Even after the fourth run we couldn't feel too cozy. But what made the difference between a nail-biting game, where the Phillies needed to strand lots of baserunners in scoring position, and a relatively breezy 4-2 win was the Phillies stellar defense. I've already mentioned the two late double-plays to help Harang finish strong. But there were three other plays worth watching again and again.

First, Rupp gunned down two runners at second with incredibly strong and accurate throws. The runners were not even close to stealing the base successfully. Both of these CSs ended innings and kept the Pirates from being a basehit away from a run. That's excellent catcher defense. Between Frenchy's throw last night and Rupp's today, I think we have a new candidate for the yearbook title. 2015 Phillies: At Least We Have Canons. Here's a link to a synecdochic video of Rupp's performance today.

Second, zombie hitter Chase Utley is not so undead in the field. He made a beautiful play to turn a sure single into a fielder's choice, sliding behind second base to cleanly snatch a hard groundball and then spinning to flip the ball to Galvis covering second for the force. And Galvis himself pirouetted and almost turned the double-play. Utley's range has obviously been limited this season. But that looked vintage. He short-circuited a jam before it began. Here's the thing itself:

So, the Phillies finish the series with the Pirates at evens. They are returning the favor for some of those seasons during the run of NL East dominance when the pitiful Pirates would steal games from the Phillies and drive us all bonkers. Up next the Phillies play the Diamondbacks at home, one bad team against a worse one. That should be sublime.

Comment of the Game: "You're never an ex-Dip. You're just pursuing other opportunities for a while." --Phillibusted

I assume he was talking about Dave Cameron and a rumored dalliance with batting-order protection.

Fangraph of Harangatang:

Source: FanGraphs