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HS 192: 5 things we learned from the Phillies-Braves series

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On Episode 192 of “Hittin’ Season:” the Phillies took two out of three from Atlanta, and showed us a few things along the way.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often in baseball that a team is faced with a statement game on May 23, but for the Phillies, Wednesday’s game against the Braves was exactly that. It was a chance, for the first time in four tries, to win a series against Atlanta, the team that’s been standing on top of them in the NL East for the first two months of the season.

The Braves had won six of nine games against the Phils this season, and if they Phillies didn’t take advantage of this opportunity to win a series and keep themselves nipping at Atlanta’s heels, they wouldn’t get another chance for another 102 games, the last 10 days of the season.

Even manager Gabe Kapler admitted Wednesday’s game was huge, saying beforehand, “This is a big game for us tonight, and I think it’s worth noting that we’re all thinking about it that way... Tonight’s game means a lot to us. I wanted to demonstrate that that’s the way we feel about it.”

Impressively, the Phils then went out and, behind 6.2 innings of fantastic pitching by Jake Arrieta, another impressive relief appearance by Seranthony Dominguez and some timely hitting by a struggling offense, secured a 4-0 victory to take two out of three games from the Braves, moving back to within a half-game of first place in the NL East.

It was the biggest win this team has had since clinching the division title in 2011. Here are five big takeaways from their series victory, all of which were talked about on Episode 192 of “Hittin’ Season,” a complete recap of the Atlanta series.

This Is Why They Got Jake Arrieta

Arrieta’s performance on Wednesday was exactly what this young team, still unsure of how good they can really be, needed. The former Cy Young Award winner who boasts 52.2 innings’ worth of postseason experience, came out and dominated the best lineup in the National League into the 7th inning, giving up no runs on seven hits with seven strikeouts and one walk.

Those seven strikeouts were his second-most as a Phillie, and it was clear from the outset he was pumped. His average fastball velocity of 93.7 mph was his highest of the season, and he lowered his ERA to 2.45. He’s been especially dominant at home, with a 0.84 ERA in 32 innings this year.

After the game, Kapler said, “But really the reason Matt [Klentak] went out and got him, and why we were so happy to have him tonight is because he can go through a lineup like the Braves’ — the best in the National League to date — three times.

“...that’s why you go out and get a big-game pitcher like that. Because he can step up in these enormous moments.”

Nick Pivetta Is An All-Star

Pivetta was perhaps even more impressive than Arrieta in the first game of the series, another shutout, 3-0. And with each passing start, he looks more and more like a star pitching in the National League.

He pitched 7 innings of shutout ball, giving up four hits and one walk with seven strikeouts, lowering his season ERA to 3.23 on the season. It was his first victory against Atlanta in four attempts this season, and by featuring a terrific fastball and devastating slider/curveball combination, has given up just one run on 10 hits in his last three appearances (19 innings) with one walk and 25 strikeouts.

If you don’t think he’s an All-Star, check out these numbers. He’s tied for 5th in the NL in fWAR (1.5), 16th in ERA, 7th in FIP (2.86), 7th in K-rate (28.0%), 7th in K-BB ratio (22.4%) and has the 7th-lowest hard-hit rate (according to Fangraphs) at 27.1%.

Jorge Alfaro Is Pudge Reincarnated

Alfaro may strike out 40% of the time, and he’s probably not going to hit much better than .240-.250 this season, but if he continues to have this much of an impact behind the plate defensively, we’ll all take it.

The athletic rookie catcher’s arm and athleticism were a huge key to winning the first and third games of the series. He made two spectacular plays on dribbles/bunt attempts in front of the mound against the Braves and threw out multiple Braves runners trying to steal second with throws that had to be seen to be believed.

Alfaro has thrown out 9 of 28 would-be base stealers, second-most in the NL behind Jonathan Lucroy, and Alfaro now has the three fastest throws to 2nd base in the NL this year to catch a base stealer — 91.3 mph, 89.6 mph and 89.3 mph.

Runners are simply not going to try to steal against the Phillies with Alfaro’s hose behind the dish, an advantage that was clearly a difference-maker in this series against Atlanta.

Seranthony Dominguez Is Ridiculous

This off-season, the Phillies signed two veteran relievers to big-money contracts, expecting them to pitch important innings late in ballgames. Pat Neshek is still on the disabled list and hasn’t thrown an inning for the Phils this year, and Tommy Hunter has been up and down, with a 4.22 ERA after missing much of the first month of the season.

The Phils have been saved by a number of young, hard throwers in the bullpen, including Edubray Ramos and Victor Arano. But the most impressive member of the group has been Seranthony Dominguez and his 99 mph cutter.

After throwing just 3.2 innings of baseball at AAA Lehigh Valley, the Phils called him up to the big leagues, and he has dominated. In nine innings, he has given up just one hit. Nothing else. He has nine strikeouts and no walks during that time, and Kapler has been using him in the highest leverage situations.

In the finale, Dominguez came on in the 7th inning with the Phils up 3-0, but with Atlanta runners on 2nd and 3rd with two out. But like he’s done every time so far in 2018, Dominguez came through, striking out Preston Tucker with an impossible-to-hit sinker at 99 mph. He then stayed in and got three more easy outs in the 8th, sending the game to the 9th for Hector Neris to finish things off with a four-run lead.

He may not pile up the “saves” for the Phillies, but Dominguez is already their best arm in the bullpen, and the team is already using him for the most important moments of the game.

Maddening Offense

The offense continues to be inconsistent, scoring just eight runs in the three-game set, with their mystical struggles against Brandon McCarthy continuing in the second game of the series.

Rhys Hoskins had a better game on Wednesday, going 1-for-3 with a walk. He was robbed of a double by Nick Markakis and just missed a home run in his first at-bat. While Cesar Hernandez has reached base in 27 consecutive games, Scott Kingery continues to struggle. Happily, Carlos Santana has a .999 OPS in May, Maikel Franco came through with a huge RBI double on Wednesday, and Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams continue to have clutch at-bats.

And while the team’s batting average of .238 is not good, their .324 on-base percentage ranks 4th, and they still lead the league in walk-rate. That’s allowing them to get runners on base, giving them opportunities to score runs even when they’re not barelling up the baseball.

The Phillies still strike out too much, and Hoskins and Kingery specifically need to take more first-pitch swings in order to combat the adjustment pitchers have made to their respective approaches.

The offense may never hum like it some expected, but if they can continue to draw walks at their current rate, they can scratch out enough offense, provided their pitching continues to do the job.

At 28-19, the Phillies take a lot of momentum into their weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays, knowing that they are going to be in the conversation for the division title all season long.