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: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges


A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."