For a veteran starting pitcher like A.J. Burnett, facing a struggling offensive team like the San Diego Padres can be tricky. Though the Padres have the worst batting average (.218) and have scored the fewest runs in the league, they can be quite aggressive.
Aided by a three-run homer and a sacrifice fly from Marlon Byrd, some electrifying radar-gun popping relief work from Jake Diekman and the 300th career save for closer Jonathan Papelbon (see story), the Phillies snapped a two-game losing streak and won for just the second time in the last 10 games.
More importantly, the Phillies kicked off a six-game homestand against the Padres (28-36) and last-place Cubs with a chance to stay alive in the NL East for a while longer.
At 26-36, the Phillies are tied with the Cubs for the worst record in the National League. However, the Phillies are just seven games out in the division.
Oh yes, the Phillies are very aware of what’s at stake during the homestand.
“We have an opportunity to climb out of a hole in this homestand and hopefully a lot of the guys in the clubhouse can recognize that and hopefully we can take advantage of that in our own ballpark,” Papelbon said. “Regardless of what’s gone on and our situation, we still have an opportunity to get back in this thing.”
Outings like Burnett’s are a good place to start. After a fielding error by Ryan Howard put runners on the corners with one out, Burnett retired 15 of the next 16 he faced on just 60 pitches. Thanks to the Padres’ aggressiveness, Burnett needed just two or fewer pitches against nine hitters and threw 16 first-pitch strikes to the 27 he faced.
Those 16 first-pitch strikes led to 14 outs.
“They swing. They come out swinging. I feel like I got away with a lot tonight,” Burnett said. “I didn't have a real good hook. I got outs out of it, but not the kind of outs I want. They swing. You have to get ahead and put guys away. I was able to get groundballs out of it.”
Better yet, Burnett was able to escape quickly after the Phillies scored four runs in the fourth inning. Those shutdown innings have been tough to come by for the Phillies during the recent skid.
“That's important. It gets us back in,” Burnett said. “We were swinging the bat good tonight. We came out swinging. I harp on it. It's about time I came through with one of those.”
The Phillies’ offense was spurred by Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the middle of the lineup. With one out in the fourth, Utley singled home Ben Revere and went from first to third on a single by Howard. That set the table for Byrd’s three-run blast to right off Ian Kennedy.
Two innings later, Utley hit another one-out single and again went from first to third on a single by Howard. This time it only took a sacrifice fly from Byrd to get Utley home.
“We just have to continue to do that, up and down the lineup,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “We had another chance in the eighth with the bases loaded and no outs, we didn’t capitalize there. I think more good at-bats, three or four or five or six guys in the lineup getting hits and having quality at-bats like we did tonight.”
Take away the eighth when Howard, Byrd and Dom Brown struck out with the bases loaded, the Phillies stranded just one base runner and got home everyone in scoring position.
That type of offense -- and the three-run homer -- has been a missing piece for the Phillies. If Sandberg can get a little more consistency in that aspect of the game, perhaps the Phils won’t be long for the cellar in the NL East.
“[We have to] build on the hits with guys gaining confidence with that,” Sandberg said. “Having everyone up and down the lineup chip in and create some momentum -- we just have to carry it over into tomorrow.”
The three-game series continues on Wednesday night when Cole Hamels (2-3, 3.49) faces right-hander Tyson Ross (6-5, 3.22). Hamels is 8-2 with a 2.39 ERA against his hometown team.
Ross has faced the Phillies three times with one start for a grand total of three innings. His start lasted just two-thirds of an inning when he allowed six runs on five hits and two walks last Sept. 12.