Having fun while playing sports is harder than it seems from the sofa. This is as true for amateur athletes as it is for professionals but certainly moreso when one’s livelihood is on the line. Every athlete feels the frustration of failure. If those failures pile up, the sport stops being fun. That predicament only multiplies when every performance is also an audition.
Of course “pile-up of failures” is in the running for Phillies video-yearbook title. Suffice it to say, it’s been tough for anyone to have fun on the Phillies. This, not just because they are losing two of every three games. Some highly competitive people have fun only when they win, or so they say. But not every successful athlete is a compulsive victor. One can have fun even while losing so long as the competition is more or less even and one’s performances are adequate to the level of competition. Losing these battles might be frustrating after the fact but the battles themselves are engrossing in the moment. And if fun is to be found anywhere it is not in the aftermath of the competition but in its activity.
These thoughts settled on me in the middle of today’s Phillies-Marlins matinee. At the time, the Phillies had just retaken the lead at 3-2, after blowing an early 2-0 lead. The lead felt fragile. Neither Nick Pivetta nor the bullpen seemed potent enough to stable the Marlins’ galloping offense for the rest of the afternoon. I, therefore, anticipated that the Phillies would surrender this lead soon enough and go on to lose the game. They did just win last night, after all.
Despite that anticipation, the game still felt fun and as if it would be fun even if the Phillies lost. This is probably because the Phillies finally seem to have a minimally competent lineup. The bases are no longer a post-apocalyptic wasteland when the Phils hit. They can pick up bases in bunches with a mix of speed and power. And they leave the yard at a reasonable rate. No wonder we’re seeing beaming smiles from the likes of Nick Williams, Odubel Herrera, and Maikel Franco.
That offense had another good day today. Starting from the first inning they put pressure on Marlins pitchers, more often than not plating runs due to that pressure. By the end of the game they scored 10 runs and knocked 20 hits. They haven’t scored 10 since June and haven’t accumulated 20 hits since 2015. All this started in the first inning against Dan Straily. After Freddy Galvis reached on a walk, Nick Williams pulled a gapper past Christian Yelich for his first triple of the day and a quick 1-0 lead. (His second triple came in the ninth when the game was already well in hand.) Williams then scored on a Maikel Franco sacrifice fly. Although the Phillies kept threatening after that, the inning ended at 2-0.
Of course, we all know it’s a law of physics that if Giancarlo Stanton hits against the Phillies in the first inning then he hits a dinger. So, the Phillies lead was cut in half after the bottom of the first. In truth, Pivetta pitched well in that first inning. He located his fastball at the edges of the strikezone and moved it around enough to keep the Marlins hitters not named Stanton from squaring it up. But against Stanton he fell behind early, ran the count to 3-1, and then got away from his strength (fastball) and hung a slider that Stanton sent directly to the top of the batter’s eye in centerfield (437 feet).
That at-bat reveals a present limitation on Pivetta’s performance. Pivetta struggles to control and command his breaking pitches. Because he can’t yet command his slider and curveball in the zone, he errs outside the zone and cannot reliably pick up strikes looking with his breaking pitches when he suspects the batter is sitting fastball. Most likely, Stanton was sitting fastball 3-1. Given the quality of the slider, it did not come close to mattering.
Nevertheless, as a later at-bat by Dee Gordon showed, he can still use his breakers as weapons. In this at-bat Pivetta worked ahead of Gordon with fastballs away. With the count 0-2, Pivetta turned to his slider and buried it in the dirt. Gordon managed to hold up but just barely. Pivetta followed the slider with another to match and Gordon whiffed. The sliders were perfect put away pitches. They started just above the knees in the middle of the plate and dove toward the inside edge of the plate as Gordon brought his hands toward the zone. He might not have much command over his breaking stuff, but if he can consistently keep them down he should at least be able to use them when he’s ahead in the count. Fortunately for him, because he has excellent fastball command, he is ahead fairly often.
Pivetta, as I’m sure you know, came into the game trying to bounce back from an outing in Milwaukee where he was pounded. It was easily his worst start since returning to the rotation after his brief hiatus in AAA. As bounce backs go, this one was a mixed bag. He struck out 4 and walked just one. But he allowed two homers (both solo), threw two wild pitches, and lasted just 5 and 1⁄3 innings due to a slightly high pitch count and a tendency to give up hard contact even on outs.
(Aside: the decision to pull Pivetta was frustrating. In the previous inning the Phillies had the bases loaded with two outs, having just scored three runs to take a 7-2 lead. Pivetta was due to bat and Pete Mackanin let him, even though the Phillies had a chance to blow the game open and Pivetta’s pitch count was high. I’d like to see a pinch-hitter there instead. But if Mackanin planned to let Pivetta pitch the sixth, then I guess the trade-off is acceptable. Instead, Mackanin yanked Pivetta after just two batters and was ready with Hoby Milner to face the impending lefties. Granted, those two batters went dinger then smashed linedrive for an out. So, perhaps Pivetta needed to come out. But, then, if you’re willing to yank Pivetta after just two batters, why not pinch-hit for him. Those two batters facing Pivetta instead of a reliever do not have as much value as a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded, even with two outs. Plan ahead better please.)
I mentioned the two wild pitches above. I should elaborate: even on good days we can’t play a clean game. In the third inning, Pivetta retired the first two batters easily and seemed to be cruising. Then he battled Yelich for a 10-pitch walk, surrendered a single to Ozuna, threw a wild pitch to move them up to second and third, and then threw another wild pitch to let Yelich score. Admittedly, the second wild pitch was a good bounced slider that got away from Andrew Knapp only a little. Yelich took a great secondary lead that put him almost halfway to home plate when the ball skidded off Knapp’s chest protector. Without it, he probably doesn’t score. That’s good baseball highlighting the Phillies bad baseball. It was a tough way to give up their early lead.
But enough of the blemishes today. Today’s game was fun! The offense was lively and for the most part the defense looked seamless. Even so, at the game’s midpoint the Phillies only led 4-2 and the outcome was hardly settled. Then in the top of the sixth, the Phillies took control of the contest. Due to their consistently tough at-bats against Straily, they had chased him from the game after the fifth. In five innings, the Phillies had put 12 runners on base against Straily and run his pitch count close to 100. That’s good offense even if it doesn’t convert to a ton of runs, which it hadn’t until the sixth.
The inning started well, as the Phillies loaded the bases with no outs. Nick Williams even took a 3-2 pitch off the inside edge to consummate the loading. (If Nick Williams starts walking...) Maikel Franco, who had a good but not stellar day at the plate—just an average day for him recently—popped up to first disappointingly. But Daniel Nava, who collected 4 hits on the day, followed that with a 2-run single to center, where Christian Yelich showed off a noodle arm that couldn’t keep Galvis from scoring from second. Tommy Joseph then flew out. But Odubel picked him up by cueing a spinning groundball double down the thirdbase line and just underneath Derek Dietrich’s glove to score Williams, who smiled handsomely as he crossed the plate. (Dietrich should have flopped to knock the ball down, he had no play on the bases anyway.) Andrew Knapp was then intentionally walked to bring up Pivetta to end the inning. But the Phillies had taken a comfortable lead that they would sit on for the rest of the game.
The bullpen took over and proved me wrong. They did in fact stable the galloping Marlins’ offense. A combination of Milner, Ricardo Pinto, Luis Garcia, and Joaquin Benoit recorded the final 11 outs. Milner only recorded one of those outs, but it was on a deft pickoff move that you can see clearly here.
All in all, today’s game was a fun one, rather rare in 2017, sadly. It was fun because the Phillies felt in the game, even when it felt more like an impending loss than a blow-out win. They could and would compete ceaselessly. As a case in point to end the recap, Nick Williams ripped a triple in his first at-bat. In the next two at-bats he saw a slew of high fastballs that he swung through, resulting in Ks. Then in his next at-bat, a key at-bat in the key sixth inning, he worked a walk as he was once again attacked with elevated and inside fastballs. He adjusted mid-game to the Marlins’ tactics against him. That’s great to see.