WASHINGTON — Of all the eye-popping numbers from Nick Pivetta's most recent starts — the 13 strikeouts, the one walk, the 80 strikes in 108 pitches — this one stood out as much as any other.
Pivetta threw 34 curveballs.
Entering the weekend, only 25 pitchers had thrown as many breaking balls in a single start this season. The group includes curveball artists Zack Godley of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Phillies ace Aaron Nola and Houston Astros righthander Lance McCullers Jr., who memorably threw 24 curveballs in a row against the New York Yankees in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series last year.
When Pivetta is at his best, as he was last Monday against the St. Louis Cardinals, his curveball is as nasty as just about any pitcher in baseball. He got 21 swings and misses against the Cardinals, 11 of which came on his fastball.
Pivetta, in his second full season in the big leagues, is beginning to realize how good the pitch can be, according to Phillies assistant pitching coach Chris Young. And a national audience is about to have a look when Pivetta starts the Phillies' first ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game in five years here against the Washington Nationals.
"It's an elite weapon," Young said.
For the last three seasons, Young worked as a scout for the Astros, which gave him an intimate view of McCullers' curveball. After getting hired by the Phillies, he watched video of Pivetta's curveball and was eager to get a closer look.
Young hasn't been let down.
"It's hard to really separate the top-tier curveballs," Young said. "Maybe some of the guys that have those are more consistent with it start to start. They're also more experienced and have done it longer than Nick. But I think the other day, the Cardinals' hitters said it, the numbers supported it, I think we saw what it can be."
It isn't uncommon for Pivetta to throw 20-25 curveballs in a start. Only once before, last Sept. 6 against the New York Mets, did he throw as many as 34. But once Pivetta and catcher Andrew Knapp saw how well it was working — Knapp called it "electric," while Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said it was the best breaking ball he'd seen all year — Pivetta went back to it frequently.
Young said Pivetta need not worry about overusing his curveball. McCullers throws his an average of 43.9 percent of the time, the highest rate in the majors. Nola ranks fifth at 28.3 percent. Pivetta is 19th at 22.8 percent, a number that might be on the rise.
"There's times when I'm sitting over here thinking, you can't throw it enough," Young said. "Sometimes we want to think we've got to set something up and we've got to throw this to get to that. But when you've got Nick's curveball from the other night or the curveball that Noles can break out, those are pitches that don't need to be set up. Those are weapons at any point in time."
Manager Gabe Kapler's pattern in close games has been to use relief ace Seranthony Dominguez to face the heart of an opposing lineup, regardless of the inning. On Saturday, though, with the Phillies leading by three runs in the eighth inning, Kapler opted for struggling lefty Adam Morgan against Bryce Harper, Juan Soto and Daniel Murphy, all lefthanded hitters.
Kapler explained that he liked how Morgan's slider matched up in that situation. And although Morgan gave up a solo homer to Anthony Rendon, he also got Harper, Soto and Murphy to ground out.
"Say you have a couple bad outings, you're like, 'OK, well, maybe I won't be in that situation again,' and then you're like, 'Dang, I am in that situation again,'" said Morgan, who entered with a 13.50 ERA in eight appearances this month. "That builds so much confidence because it's like, no matter what, you're our guy. It inspires me to keep going."
Ace starter Aaron Nola is a lock to return to Washington next month for the All-Star Game. He gave up two first-inning runs and little else over six innings en route to improving to 9-2. … Reliever Pat Neshek (forearm) struck out two batters in a perfect seventh inning for high-A Clearwater, his first appearance in a minor-league assignment. … For the first time since he felt numbness in his fingers during a minor-league rehab start last month, righthander Jerad Eickhoff threw a few curveballs off the bullpen mound. In all, Eickhoff tossed about 35 pitches, including 10 curveballs, and characterized the session as "a big, huge step." He expects to throw another bullpen session in a few days.