Are the Phillies NL East contenders again?

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Are the Phillies NL East contenders again?

Charlie Manuel has a way about him. You’ve probably noticed. Things he does. Things he says. Things he believes.

One of his favorite talking points is as simple as it is true. You’ve heard him repeat some variation of the same thing almost every year for various reasons. The thought, distilled to its essence, goes like this: to be a good team, you have to beat good teams. Or, put in the parlance of his friend Ric Flair, to be the man, you have to beat the man.

These Phillies need to beat a lot of men and a lot of teams between now and the trade deadline if they hope to work their way into the playoff conversation (if not the actual race itself). You know it. The players know it. Manuel certainly knows it. On Thursday, the manager dusted off one of his favorite truisms, repurposed it for the here and now, and summed up the Phillies’ current situation nicely.

“There comes a time, if you’re going to be a playoff-contending team, you’re going to have to beat some good pitchers along the way,” Manuel said before the Phils faced excellent Nationals hurler Jordan Zimmermann. “And we’re supposed to beat some good pitchers at times. I know Zimmermann is a good pitcher. I like him. I like everything about him. But at the same time, I have seen us score runs on him. I think that we have enough left-handed hitting to score runs on him. Hopefully we can do it.”

They did it -- barely. The Phillies pushed two earned runs across the plate against Zimmermann in their 3-1 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see game recap).

Kyle Kendrick pitched an excellent game and got the win. Jonathan Papelbon came on to get the save. But the Phillies had four errors, and it took yet another pinch-hit RBI by Kevin Frandsen to put them ahead late. It was a tense night. But the Phillies won -- the game and the series. Lately, they’ve made a habit of doing the latter. The Phils have won four of their last five series.

It has been a while since the Phillies played well enough to make you check the out-of-town scores each night. That is the fun part of baseball -- the standings and the race and the long slog toward the playoffs. It has been a while since the Phils were good enough to prompt that kind of behavior.

That’s what the Phils have done recently -- they’ve made themselves relevant again. They are 24-14 against the NL East, the best record of any club in the division. You can understand, then, why general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said “no one is running away” with the division and “no one is invincible," (see story).

Which leads us back to the buy or sell question that’s been asked repeatedly for the last few weeks. With the way the Phils are playing, it’s hard to imagine Amaro giving up on a team that just took a series from the Braves and another from the Nationals.

“I considered us less of a contender last year,” Amaro said. “We’re in a better spot this year.”


That’s a hard point to argue. But what might it take for the Phils to actually make the playoffs?

“That second wild card, if you look at it, you might stand a chance of getting in at a mid-80s win [total], something like that -- 84, 86, 87,” Manuel said. “There’s been teams that got in the playoffs before playing three or four over .500 or something like that. With the second wild card, that’s kind of the structure it adds -- mid-80s to high-80s might get you that second wild-card berth.

“I’ve always looked at winning the division. I thought if you win enough games, the other things, the wild card, would take care of themselves. I think it’s going to take, in this division here, probably 88 to 92 wins. Somewhere in that area. If some team wins 93 to 95, they’re definitely going to win this division.”

Forget 93 or 95 wins. Forget 92. Even with how well they’ve played, those numbers seem well out of reach. Let’s go with something more realistic. We’ll use the 88 wins Manuel referenced as a starting point.

The Phillies are 46-47. They have 69 games remaining. To reach 88 wins, they have to go 42-27 the rest of the way. That’s a .642 clip. For a team that’s still under .500, that seems like a big chore. But considering how the Phillies have played of late, it’s possible to imagine a future in which they’re among the teams pushing toward the playoffs.

But that’s for later. For now, the Phillies won another game and another series. They’re relevant again. That will do for the moment.

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

Nick Pivetta continues build toward strong finish in Phillies' win over Braves

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ATLANTA — The Phillies and Atlanta Braves are both rebuilding teams that have looked to acquire as much pitching as possible over the last few seasons.

The Phillies added Nick Pivetta in the trade that sent Jonathan Papelbon to Washington two years ago. The Braves picked up Luiz Gohara from Seattle back in January.

If both pitchers continue to develop, there's a chance they could face each other in a National League division race someday. 

On Sunday, they squared off in a battle of teams playing out the string, but the intensity of the matchup was good. That can happen in the penultimate weekend of the season. After all, impressions can be made right up until the final pitch of the season. Players are always auditioning, especially rookies hoping to win spots next season.

Pivetta, 24, made a very nice showing. He out-pitched Gohara in helping the Phillies salvage one game of the three-game series against the Braves with a 2-0 win (see observations).

Maikel Franco and Aaron Altherr keyed a just-enough Phillies' offense with a solo homer and an RBI double and the bullpen triumvirate of Edubray Ramos, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris combined for three scoreless innings to seal the shutout.

Pivetta pitched six shutout innings, walked one and struck out four. He gave up five hits. It's been an up-and-down season for the rookie right-hander. There's been a lot of on-the-job training and a few bruisings. He is 7-10 with a 6.26 ERA in 25 starts. He has allowed just two runs in 12 innings over his last two starts, so he's finishing the season on a high note.

"The key to his outing today was that he was throwing all his pitches for strikes," manager Pete Mackanin said. "His breaking ball and his changeup, he really did a good job with them, throwing them ahead in the count and behind in the count, so that was key.

"This is the place to learn. You can have a lot of success in the minor leagues but when you get up here it's a different animal. The best place to learn is at the big-league level and take your lumps and learn from them. Now, if you have too many guys like that you don’t win a lot of games, so you can afford to have one or maybe two guys in the rotation that are feeling their way through it, but not more than that."

Forced to the majors by injuries in the rotation early in the season, Pivetta has often talked about the learning experience his first year in the majors has been.

He was happy to talk about getting a victory Sunday.

"It's been nice," he said. "I've settled down a little the last two starts. Today, I just tried to do the right things — get ahead of hitters. And the guys played great defense behind me.

"Even when I had runners on base, I was able to attack the hitters the way I wanted and I didn't put too much pressure on myself."

That's not always easy for a rookie pitcher in a close game. Pivetta's ability to stay cool and pitch around baserunners in the fifth and sixth innings was a sign of his improvement. He will have one more start before the season ends and is looking to build on two good ones and go into the offseason with a healthy dose of confidence. He will be a candidate for a spot in the rotation next spring.

Sunday's victory left the Phillies at 62-94. They need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses. That once seemed to be a certainty, but they have played well since the All-Star break, recording a 33-36 record since then. They were 29-58 before the break.

Young players such as Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins have come up from the minors and given the Phils a lift in recent weeks. The bullpen has also improved with Ramos, Morgan, Neris and Luis Garcia (before Saturday night) pitching well. Morgan pitched a scoreless eighth inning Sunday. He has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Neris is 18 for 18 in save opportunities since June 28.

The only run that the Phils scored against Gohara came in the fifth when Franco smacked a first-pitch changeup into the left-field seats for his 21st homer. The pitch was on the middle-half of the plate, Franco's happy zone.

Franco is hitting .308 with three homers and seven RBIs since J.P. Crawford came up and applied a little competitive heat.

Franco said that's coincidence, that he's focused only on what he needs to do to get better.

"I think when those young guys come up it always creates an energy spurt in everybody," Mackanin said. "For whatever reason, if Maikel is having a good September, I hope it carries through for five or six months next year. One month does not a good year make. Hopefully, he'll have a better approach and he's going to be more successful."

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

Phillies-Braves observations: Maikel Franco homers, Nick Pivetta tosses gem in final road game

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ATLANTA — Phillies rookie Nick Pivetta outpitched Atlanta Braves rookie Luiz Gohara Sunday afternoon as the Phils salvaged the final game of a three-game series with a 2-0 win at steamy SunTrust Park.
 
Maikel Franco smacked his 21st homer and Aaron Altherr had an RBI double for the Phillies' two runs.
 
Pivetta (7-10) pitched six shutout innings and the bullpen did the rest.
 
The Phillies ended up with a 13-6 record against Atlanta this season, their best against any team.
 
• Pivetta has mostly struggled in 25 starts in his rookie season, but he's also had some very nice outings where his potential has really shined. This was one of them. His last start, in which he gave up two runs in six innings against the Dodgers, was a good one, too. So the right-hander seems to be finishing on a high note. He will have one more start before the end of the season. In a perfect world, Pivetta would have gotten more time at Triple A this season, but there was a need in the majors. Ultimately, he should benefit from his baptism by fire.
 
• Atlanta lefty Gohara was very good in his fourth big-league start. The 21-year-old from Brazil gave up just five hits, walked two and struck out nine. The only run he gave up came on Franco's homer.
 
• Pivetta did a good job pitching around trouble. He got two outs in the second inning after an error by Franco put a runner on second. He also pitched around sloppy infield play in the fifth. In the sixth, Pivetta knocked down a ball back to the box but was unable to start a double play. He stayed calm and got two outs to get out of the inning.
 
• The Phillies took a 1-0 lead on a solo homer by Franco in the top of the fifth. Franco turned on a first-pitch changeup from Gohara. The pitch was on the inside half of the plate — right in Franco's happy zone. Franco pulls off pitches away in the zone, but he kills mistakes inside. Franco will work on this flaw in winter ball this season (see story).
 
• Altherr doubled home an important insurance run for the Phillies in the eighth inning. Altherr has 61 RBIs on the season and 27 have come in the seventh inning or later.
 
• Good job by the Phillies' bullpen. Edubray Ramos and Adam Morgan pitched scoreless ball in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively. Morgan has allowed just two runs over his last 24 innings. That covers 18 appearances since Aug. 2. Hector Neris survived two hits in the ninth and picked up the save. He is perfect on is last 18 chances since June 28.

• The Phillies' first two hits of the game were singles to right field and both runners, Cesar Hernandez and Jorge Alfaro, were out trying to stretch at second base. Braves rightfielder Nick Markakis made two perfect throws. Hernandez needed to come out of the box quicker.
 
• The Phillies have a 35-40 record at home. They will play their final six games of the season at home beginning Monday night with the opener of a three-game series against the NL East champion Washington Nationals. Aaron Nola (12-10, 3.56) pitches against right-hander A.J. Cole (2-5, 4.43) on Monday night. Jake Thompson (2-2, 4.14) opposes lefty Gio Gonzalez (15-7, 2.68) on Tuesday night. Mark Leiter Jr. (3-6, 4.69) and right-hander Tanner Roark (13-10, 4.41) close out the series Wednesday night. The Phillies need to win one of their final six games to avoid 100 losses.