He idolized a great Phillies pitcher, now Nick Pivetta hopes to become one

He idolized a great Phillies pitcher, now Nick Pivetta hopes to become one

Hockey is the No. 1 sport for many Canadian kids.

It wasn’t for Nick Pivetta.

In the land of skates and pucks, he was always a baseball kid.

As a youngster growing up on Canada’s West Coast, Pivetta made sure to be in front of the television at 4 p.m. most days. The Toronto Blue Jays, playing three times zones away, were must-see TV for him — especially if his favorite player was on the mound.

“Roy Halladay was my idol,” said Pivetta, himself a big right-hander, just like Halladay. “I grew up watching him. When I got home from school they’d be starting their games and I’d watch all of them.”

Pivetta, who turns 24 next month, is one of the Phillies' top pitching prospects. He and a handful of the team’s most advanced minor-leaguers are in town this week to take part in the club’s annual wintertime seminar designed to prepare top prospects for some of the behind-the-scene realities of big-league life.

On Wednesday, the players were assigned lockers in the Phillies' clubhouse for a media availability session. When it was pointed out to Pivetta that his locker was just a couple away from the one formerly occupied by Jonathan Papelbon, the man he was traded for two summers ago, he responded with some intel of his own.

“I heard Roy used to sit here,” he said.

Lo and behold, he was right.

In a stroke of pure coincidence, Pivetta’s nameplate was fastened above the locker that Halladay called home during the four seasons he spent with the Phillies after his trade from Toronto in December 2009.

Pivetta was thrilled by this little bit of serendipity.

“It’s surreal,” he said.

Pivetta was originally selected by the Washington Nationals in the fourth round of the 2013 draft. He was in the middle of his second full season in the Nats’ system when he was traded to the Phillies for Papelbon. Pivetta struggled in seven starts at Double A Reading after the July 2015 trade but rebounded nicely in 2016. He went 11-6 with a 3.41 ERA in 22 starts at Reading before jumping to Triple A and registering a 2.55 ERA in his final five starts of the season. His walk rate went from 4.0 per nine innings in 2015 to 3.1 in 2016.

His strong season and the potential for more earned him a spot on the 40-man roster.

Being traded can be jarring to a young minor-leaguer and it was to Pivetta. But he has come to love the move and the opportunity he has in the Phillies organization.

“I believe the trade changed me for the better, 100 percent,” he said. “It’s an experience I really needed to go through as a human being. I needed to step out of my comfort zone. I was comfortable with the Nationals. When I came here I really didn’t know too many people and stepping out of that comfort zone myself and connecting with all these new players and meeting a new coaching staff changed me in all the right ways. It made me grow up. I became more of a man and more of an adult in how to approach life.”

Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development, saw the new maturity in Pivetta last season.

“In 2016 he showed us the potential to be a really good major-league pitcher,” Jordan said. “He was a little excitable after the trade in 2015, but he came back calm and confident last year. His stuff is legit — 93 to 96 (mph) with life on the fastball, good breaking ball and good feel for the changeup.”

Pivetta, who stands 6-5 and weighs 220 pounds, likes to throw a two-seam fastball or sinker. He learned just how effective that pitch can be by watching Halladay on TV as a kid.

“I loved watching how Roy competed, how he was a true professional, how he did everything right,” Pivetta said. “I throw a two-seamer and I used to love to watch how he could command that pitch on both sides of the plate and how he really cut down on his walks. He didn’t walk anybody. I’ve struggled with my walks, but I want to become that pitcher. I want to succeed like he did.”

The Phillies have assembled some decent starting pitching depth. On paper, the big-league rotation figures to consist of Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Vince Velasquez and either Aaron Nola or Zach Eflin, depending on health. Behind this group is Jake Thompson, Adam Morgan, Alec Asher, Ben Lively, Mark Appel, Ricardo Pinto and Pivetta. It’s unclear how all the starting slots will be filled in the upper levels of the system — that will shake out in Clearwater in March — but it seems that Pivetta has a good shot to return to Triple A and build on what he did there over the final month of the 2016 season.

Pivetta is eager to get to Clearwater for his first big-league spring training camp. He will leave the team in early March to join Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic. A native of Victoria, British Columbia and a veteran of Canada’s international junior teams, he is expected to hold down a spot in the team’s starting rotation.

“It’ll be my first time with the senior team,” Pivetta said with an eager smile. “I’m so excited to be able to represent my country and play for Team Canada.”

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

Best of MLB: Royals storm back in 9th inning for win over Blue Jays

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Whit Merrifield hit a two-run, two-out double that capped a four-run rally in the ninth inning, and the Kansas City Royals beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4 on Friday night to reach .500 for the first time since April.

With their 10th win in 12 games, the Royals improved to 36-36. They were 6-6 before play on April 20, then went on a nine-game losing streak that night and dropped as low as 10-20, seven games out of first place. They trail AL Central-leading Cleveland by three games.

Toronto took a 2-1 lead into the ninth and extended it when Josh Donaldson and Justin Smoak hit RBI singles off Joakim Soria (4-2) (see full recap).

Dodgers cruise past Rockies for 8th straight win
LOS ANGELES -- Yasiel Puig homered and left-hander Alex Wood kept his record perfect as the streaking Los Angeles Dodgers defeated the NL West rival Colorado Rockies 6-1 on Friday night for their eighth consecutive victory.

The Dodgers have won 14 of their last 15 games. They have scored at least six runs in seven consecutive games.

Wood (8-0) allowed one run in six innings. He gave up only three hits and walked two, retiring his last 10 batters.

The Dodgers have homered in 15 consecutive games, tied for fourth-longest streak in club history. The last time they managed it was in 1977. Their record is 24 consecutive games with a home run.

Rookie left-hander Kyle Freeman (8-4) allowed five runs and a career-high 10 hits and three walks in six innings (see full recap).

Torreyes hits walk-off single to lift Yanks over Rangers
NEW YORK -- Ronald Torreyes hit a game-winning single with two outs in the 10th inning after midnight, and the New York Yankees edged the Texas Rangers 2-1 on a rainy Friday night for just their second win in 10 games.

Brett Gardner lined a tying home run with one out in the New York ninth off closer Matt Bush. After Chasen Shreve (2-1) escaped a bases-loaded jam in the top of the 10th, Torreyes kept the Yankees atop the AL East.

Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka kept it scoreless into the late innings in the first major league meeting between the Japanese stars (see full recap).

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

Mark Leiter Jr. picks up 1st big-league win as Phillies cool off Diamondbacks

BOX SCORE

PHOENIX -- The clubhouse was beginning to clear and still the star of the game had not yet emerged from the shower.

"He's in there cleaning the guacamole and mayo out of his hair," Cameron Rupp said with a laugh.

Eventually Mark Leiter Jr. made it out of the shower and over to his locker where equipment man Phil Sheridan presented him with three game balls, souvenirs from not only his first big-league start but his first big-league win, as well.

"It's something I'll never forget," the 26-year-old right-hander from Toms River, N.J., said pitching six shutout innings to backbone the Phillies' 6-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on Friday night (see Instant Replay).

"I’ll be honest, I was probably more excited for this than I was for my major-league debut. To go out there and contribute to a win is what I was hoping to do."

Leiter, a 22nd-round draft pick by the Phillies in 2013, had never made it onto the 40-man roster until the Phils needed a reliever in mid-April and gave him a shot after he'd gotten off to a good start at Triple A. He spent six weeks in the majors and made 12 relief appearances before being sent back to Triple A the first weekend of June.

Leiter worked as a starter during his time back at Triple A. He pitched six shutout innings against Syracuse in his last start and got the call to come back up when Jerad Eickhoff went on the disabled list with a back strain earlier this week.

Leiter's return assignment was not easy: The Diamondbacks are one of the best hitting clubs in the majors and the best on their home turf. They entered the game scoring 6.48 runs per game at home and with an .886 OPS, both major-league bests.

None of that fazed Leiter.

"In my opinion, this is the big leagues and it doesn’t matter who the lineup is," he said. "They all have the ability to hit and hit well. They’re all big-leaguers and they've earned their right to be big-leaguers. I was just trying to pitch to the team you're facing that day."

Leiter trusted his low-90s fastball and commanded it well. He mixed in his secondary stuff and kept the D-backs off-balance with his splitter. He scattered three hits, walked one and struck out five. He showed no fear.

"Great performance," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He made it look easy. He made a lot of good hitters look bad with his split. For him to come up and do that to a real good hitting team was outstanding."

Leiter's dad, Mark Sr., pitched for the Phillies in 1997 and 1998. He made the trip in from New Jersey to watch his son's first big-league start.

"I guess they found him on TV," Leiter said. "That's what they were telling me. I'm sure he wasn't too pleased they found him because he was probably stressed out. But I think it was probably worth him coming out here. He's probably happy."

How could he not be?

Leiter's teammates were definitely happy.

They treated Leiter to a raucous postgame dousing that included as many different condiments as could be found in the clubhouse dining room. One laughing player had a bottle of ketchup in his hands. Another had a squeeze bottle of honey.

And then there was the guacamole and mayo that Rupp mentioned.

"In his first major-league start, to come up here and do that in what is known as a good hitters’ park - that proves Mark is pretty strong between the ears," Tommy Joseph said. "He's been one of those under-the-radar guys that people have doubted, but his mentality and ability to prepare are second to none."

Joseph played a big role in the win, smacking a two-run homer in the ninth inning to give the Phillies some breathing room. Maikel Franco also had a big home run and Freddy Galvis contributed an important triple that led to a Phillies' run in the first inning.

The Phils still have the worst record in the majors at 24-48, but they've won two in a row, both on the back of good starting pitching performances. Aaron Nola pitched 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Thursday.

And Leiter delivered on Friday.

"It's good to see those back-to-back," Mackanin said.