As we approach the midway point in this Phillies season, our attention might drift toward the behind-the-scenes drama. Nobody enjoys failure. As the frustration mounts, the ties that bind will fray and let loose the furies jailed therein. We saw a glimpse of that last night, when Odubel Herrera infuriated Juan Samuel by blowing through a stop-sign at third. Today, Samuel showed indifference toward Herrera’s complaint about a call at third. Perhaps we’re seeing drama overflow into the game.
When the outcome on the field is as predictably depressing as the Phillies have been, it is tempting to scour the players and coaches for their mental states because, hey, at least that is interesting and suspenseful. But we shouldn’t let that temptation distract us from the genuinely positive developments as they saunter by.
Take Aaron Nola’s performance today. We haven’t seen this version of Nola since early June of 2016, before his eventually revealed injury soured him. Nola was able to locate each of his pitches, keeping them down and generating whiffs and groundouts. Slurve #1 flashed the whiffle-ball movement away from the righty’s bat while #2 dove beneath them. His changeup slid arm-side like a Valenzuela screwball. And his fastballs stayed mostly on the paint. Moreover, his excellence seemed effortless, keeping runners off-base, especially early, and often needing fewer than 15 pitches to retire the side (and as low as 5). Ultimately, he produced an impressive line: 7.1 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 8 K, 1 R, 1HR. Given the strikeouts, the opponent, and the sheer look of his performance, this one fairly surpasses his dominance of the Braves on June 6th (incidentally, the last time the Phillies defeated an NL opponent).
When we add Nola’s line to his fellow starters’ in this series the picture looks even rosier. Phillies starters combined to throw 20.1 IP, record 22 K, allow just 5 BB, and hold the Cardinals to 5 R. If the Phillies starters can consistently record a 1.00 WHIP or lower and 9+ K/9, I think we’ll all be a bit happier. (Of course, the Phillies were outscored 16-12 in the series thanks to the bullpen. But let’s not talk about that just now.)
Granted, Jeremy Hellickson’s performance was more weak-contact than dominance and he’s a short-term piece, but Nick Pivetta has backed-up excellent starts and now Nola looks every bit the top-end starter he was drafted to be. Once again, we have a glimmer of hope that at the end of this slog of a season, the Phillies will have the foundation for a competitive rotation.
Coming into the game, I felt a loss coming. Carlos Martinez started for the Cardinals and he’s been excellent all season, posting a sub-3.00 ERA. He’s a typical power-pitcher, with a fastball touching triple-digits and a hard curve to get whiffs. In other words, he’s the sort of pitcher we’d expect the Phillies to give very little trouble.
But Martinez was not at his sharpest today and it showed from the first inning on. There, Freddy Galvis fell behind in the count, and Martinez tried to put him away with a sharp curve at Freddy’s feet. Martinez left the curve up a bit, however—right in that spot where lefties can exploit an upper-cut swing for maximum effect. And that’s just what Galvis did, dropping a fly ball just over the rightfield wall for a solo homer and early lead.
Martinez more or less cruised from then on, although he could never overwhelm the Phillies lineup with strikeouts as he might like. Then in the 5th, Tommy Joseph tagged a high, center-cut fastball to make the score 2-0. After that, the Cardinals once again did their best to help the Phillies score. A combination of worm-burner singles and errors by the middle infield led to a two-out run, which pushed the lead to 3.
Suddenly, the Phillies had a comfortable lead, in light of Nola’s pitching. Of course, I felt the same way about last night’s bigger lead and that mirage evaporated like so much birch beer spilled into the dust of a Pennsylvania Dutch summer. But today would be different. Sure, my tie tightened a bit when Nola surrendered a lead-off home run to Paul DeJong to start the 8th. And the fact that Pete Mackanin did not have anyone warming up at the start of the inning made my tie ever so slightly tighter. But Pat Neshek needed just one batter to end the 8th on a double play, Tommy Joseph doubled the lead in the bottom half on a bases-loaded, two-out, line-drive single up the middle, and Luis Garcia rode some generous strike calls and even more generous swings to a completed win. Nothing like winning once a week. Everything in moderation.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Odubel Herrera had a good day at the plate with a double, a walk, and a run scored. But he also got picked-off third by Yadier Molina and drew remarks about his lack of hustle by a) walking back to the dugout after Mackanin decided not to review and b) not running on a 3-2, 2-out pitch. The drama will continue.