Relievers' pivotal eighth inning ensures Phillies' win

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Relievers' pivotal eighth inning ensures Phillies' win

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Carlos Ruiz pumped his fist once toward pitcher Jeremy Horst, and dashed back to the dugout as if he was part of a big prank and that he couldn’t believe he got away with it.

Perhaps as a result of the Phillies’ 6-2 victory over the hard-hitting Cleveland Indians on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park (see Instant Replay), maybe they did get away with something.

Horst fired just four pitches — all fastballs — to escape a first-and-third jam in the eighth inning with a strikeout against the Indians. As a result, Horst was the unlikely setup man in manager Charlie Manuel’s patchwork maneuvering of the bullpen. With regular setup man Mike Adams unavailable because of back spasms for the second straight game, Manuel needed three pitchers to get the three outs in the inning.

It came together brilliantly.

Antonio Bastardo faced the first three batters in the eighth, allowing a leadoff triple to Asdrubal Cabrera and a walk to Carlos Santana sandwiched around a strikeout against cleanup hitter Nick Swisher.

With runners at the corners and one out, Manuel turned to righty Justin De Fratus in his second outing of the season after throwing six pitches for the win in his debut last Sunday in Arizona. On Tuesday against slugger Mark Reynolds, De Fratus threw two fastballs. One was a strike and the other was a broken-bat pop out for the second out.

De Fratus gave way to Horst and four pitches later, Ruiz was grinning and running away from the batting circle after an inning-ending strikeout. In the bottom of the eighth, the Phillies added a pair of runs to ensure that rookie Jonathan Pettibone picked up his third straight win in five starts.

Pettibone is the first Phillies starting pitcher to begin his career 3-0 since Randy Wolf went 5-0 before his first loss in 1999.

Regardless, Pettibone doesn’t get that third win if it wasn’t for the work in the eighth inning from the bullpen. Better yet, in a big spot of the game, the much-maligned Phils' relievers stepped into a crucial spot and came through.

“Those are the spots you want to pitch in as a reliever,” De Fratus said. “You just go out there and attack the zone and hope for the best.”

For a relief corps that entered the game with a 4.00 ERA, an opponents’ batting average that ranked 12th in the National League and the worst success rate with inherited runners, the eighth inning was a true confidence builder.

So with Adams unavailable, Manuel said he leaned on the matchups when deciding which pitcher to use in the eighth. Considering De Fratus has faced only one player on the Indians in the big leagues and Horst retired Brantley two weeks ago in Cleveland, those were Manuel’s best options.

Though the sample size was miniscule, the amount of confidence gained was immeasurable.

“We got the guys some experience and if they do the job, we build their confidence, too,” Manuel said. “That’s not bad.”

That was especially the case for De Fratus, who was making just his 20th big-league appearance and just his second appearance in a game that wasn’t played in September or October. To step in a situation with runners on first and third to face the hitter leading the American League in homers was no small feat.

That is if De Fratus was even thinking about whom he was facing when he reared back and gave Reynolds heat.

“The plan there knowing we never faced each other is to go out there and give him a good heater and see if he sees me,” De Fratus said. “Then I’d throw pitches off of that. So based on the first pitch I felt confident enough to come back with the heater.”

De Fratus needed just two of them to splinter Reynolds’ bat.

“The goal is to go out there and get outs and preserve the lead,” De Fratus said. “But it’s definitely a cool feeling to go out there in the eighth inning in a tight situation against a big-time hitter. It’s a lot of fun and I hope to get the chance to do it again.”

Depending on when Adams is next available, De Fratus could find himself back in another tight spot soon. In two appearances, the right-hander has thrown eight pitches for two outs and already has a win and a hold.

Talk about efficiency.

Meanwhile, the Phillies showed a bit of offense in holding off the Indians. Kevin Frandsen opened the game with a homer in the first inning and the Phillies tacked on two more to take the lead they would never relinquish with John Mayberry’s two-run double in the fourth.

Domonic Brown slugged a solo homer (his seventh) in the sixth before Mayberry singled home an insurance run in the eighth and came around to score on Freddy Galvis’ two-out single just three batters later.

The Phillies go for the sweep of the mini-series on Wednesday afternoon when Cole Hamels (1-5, 4.18) faces righty Cory Kluber (2-2, 5.64).

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.