Chalk it up to a scheduling quirk that nine of the Phillies' first 27 games came against the Atlanta Braves. But the frequency of the meetings and the lopsided results — the Braves went 6-3 by a combined score of 54-30 — prompted Phillies coaches to dig deeper in their preparation for yet another showdown between the teams this week at Citizens Bank Park. As manager Gabe Kapler put it, the Phils "prepared like animals." It showed in the series opener Monday night. Nick Pivetta pitched seven shutout innings, and Nick Williams and Aaron Altherr homered in a 3-0 victory that pushed the Phillies to within a half-game of the NL East-leading Braves with two more head-to-head meetings remaining this week.
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A few years ago, back when he was in the minor leagues with the Texas Rangers, Jorge Alfaro met Hall of Fame catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez, who offered a few pointers on how to improve his defense.
Monday night, Alfaro proved he was paying attention.
Alfaro made three highlight-reel plays, two of which came in the seventh inning with the Phillies holding a 1-0 lead. He caught Johan Camargo on an attempted steal of second base, then fired a strike to first after fielding Dansby Swanson's roller in front of the plate. Alfaro applied the exclamation point to the Phillies' victory with a game-ending spin-and-throw on a bunt by Braves speedster Ender Inciarte.
"I don't know if there's another catcher that I've ever seen — and I played with Pudge — that makes that play in the ninth inning," Kapler said. "[Alfaro] is spectacularly talented, spectacularly athletic, incredibly durable. He's starting to look like a guy who is going to be a fixture in our lineup for a long time."
Indeed, Alfaro's gems were further examples of how much better he has gotten behind the plate. While Alfaro has worked hard to improve his game-calling and pitch-framing, he always has possessed physical gifts, notably a rocket arm. And he showed off that arm strength against the Braves. His throw to cut down Camargo was clocked at 88.3 mph, according to Statcast, inspiring Kapler to say Alfaro's arm is "neck and neck, at worst" with Rodriguez's.
"I don't know if I believe that," Alfaro said. "But it means a lot to me that the manager has a lot of confidence in me."
Remember when Pivetta gave up 840 feet worth of homers to Bryce Harper and didn't make it out of the second inning May 4 in Washington? Since then, he has allowed one run and has 25 strikeouts and two walks in 19 innings over three starts. Matt Breen explains how Pivetta has responded to the worst start of his career.
It wasn't all good news for the Phillies on Monday. Jerad Eickhoff suffered a setback in his minor-league rehab assignment and won't be rejoining the Phillies' starting rotation anytime soon. Also, outfield prospect Roman Quinn will miss 6-8 weeks after having surgery on his right middle finger.
If you watch closely tonight, you might see Phillies starter Vince Velasquez singing to himself on the mound. It's a little trick the high-strung righthander has learned to calm down and relax, as Matt Breen tells us in this entertaining story.
Tonight: Velasquez aims to win his fourth consecutive start, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Jake Arrieta starts the series finale vs. Braves, 7:05 p.m.
Thursday: Off day
Friday: Phillies open a three-game interleague series vs. Blue Jays, 7:05 p.m.
After rookie Seranthony Dominguez faced Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Freddie Freeman with a three-run lead in the eighth inning — the highest-leverage situation in Monday night's game — Kapler turned to struggling Hector Neris in the ninth against Nick Markakis, Kurt Suzuki and Ender Inciarte.
"We felt like it was the right spot to introduce him back into the ninth inning," Kapler said. "It doesn't mean that we're going to follow suit all the time. We're going to continue to roll out our best possible option in the most important moments in the game."
Neris recorded three outs on eight pitches — all four-seam fastballs or splitters. It was significant because those are Neris' best pitches. Entering this week, opponents were slugging only .357 against his four-seamer and .261 against his splitter, according to Brooks Baseball, and those marks are better than last season's totals (.470 slugging vs. four-seamer, .272 vs. splitter). Neris has gotten in trouble by throwing his sinker and slider. As Neris seeks to regain the full-time closer job, it will be interesting to see if he shelves those pitches entirely.
Question 1: I feel Kingery was rushed to the big leagues too fast. Not enough minor-league at-bats, and basic defensive miscues. Is management just going to bite the bullet because of the contract they gave him? –Dennis, via e-mail
Question 2: Kingery has failed to impress us with his hitting and fielding in the last six weeks. Can the Phils send him down, or are they too embarrassed to admit that there was no rush to sign him to a (six)-year contract? — Allan, via e-mail
Answer: Lots of Scott Kingery angst out there. It's true: Kingery has struggled since about the third week of the season. But he's also a 24-year-old rookie, and most 24-year-old rookies go through rough times. Let's not forget that Chase Utley batted .239 with a .696 OPS as a 24-year-old rookie in 2003. The Phillies can send Kingery back to triple-A, but it's doubtful they will. Not as long as he makes even small contributions, such as his bunt single in the seventh inning Monday night.