ALLENTOWN — On the day that the Phillies sent him down to the minors, Nick Pivetta visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his wife, Kristen. The bad news had hit him like a bullet. One minute, he was in the trainer’s room, getting treatment on his right shoulder, having finished a workout and looking forward to getting something to eat. The next, he was in manager Gabe Kapler’s office with general manager Matt Klentak, and Pivetta was mumbling a thank-you to them before heading back into the clubhouse to clean out his locker. He was angry, he said later, and disappointed that he had let down his teammates.
Kristen suggested the trip to the museum. Let’s get away from baseball, she told him, because you need to be ready to go. You’ve got to start again. The Impressionists interested Pivetta most, Monet in particular, with their renditions of quotidian 19th-century life: a dog on a porch, a meadow outside a window.
“Back then, you know what it was like only through pictures,” he said. “You can see everything now. It’s all cameras and photos.”
Afterward, he and Kristen had dinner in the city. The following morning, he drove here, to Coca-Cola Park, to throw a bullpen session with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
“There’s no sense in pondering the what-ifs and what-happens,” Pivetta said Monday. “What’s done is done, and I can’t walk into Matt’s office and be like, ‘Change your mind.’ He’s already made his mind up, so why dwell on it? Why not go out and get better and have fun and play the game I love to play?”
As if their succession of big-name, big-money offseason acquisitions wasn’t evidence enough, the Phillies showed just how committed they were to chasing a postseason berth and a World Series this season by demoting Pivetta on April 17, after he had posted an unsightly 8.35 ERA over just four starts. Only 26, with a mid-90s fastball and a biting curveball, he had been a wild card, a pitcher who the Phillies hoped, but could not be certain, would demonstrate immediately that he belonged in the starting rotation of a playoff-caliber team.
Instead, he has spent two weeks with the IronPigs, watching his friends and peers — Zach Eflin, Jerad Eickhoff, Vinny Velasquez — pitch the Phillies into first place in the National League East, waiting to earn another chance. The Phillies have discussed moving him to the bullpen, Kapler told reporters Tuesday, but such a move, if it were to happen, won’t come anytime soon.
“It’s a hard thing to deal with, and I don’t think about it because it’s too hard to deal with,” Pivetta said. “Those are my friends. Those are my teammates. I know their families. I know their wives. I know their dog. I know everything about them, and I get sent down, and now they’re up there and I’m down here. It’s a hard situation. It’s tough, and it’s not easy, and it’s not fair, but it’s part of our job.”
If Pivetta was carrying any residual anger with him when he arrived in Lehigh Valley, his manager, Gary Jones, diffused it with a soft, humorous jab at him when they met: “Hey, Nick. Good to see you. … Well, not really good to see you.”
In baseball vernacular, the Phillies wanted Pivetta to become more aggressive with his fastball. In practical terms, he has worked, during his tutoring sessions with IronPigs pitching coach Steve Schrenk, on not trying so hard to be fine and accurate. Divide the plate into thirds, Schrenk has told him, and give yourself some margin for error. Aim for the outside corner and miss, and you’ll either throw a ball or a hittable pitch. Aim for the outside third of the plate, and the fastball will run over the outside corner.
“He’s on the right track,” Schrenk said.
Pivetta has made two starts for the IronPigs, the second an overpowering, six-inning performance Sunday against Buffalo. He allowed one run and struck out 14, including the first six batters, none of whom even fouled off one of his pitches. Though he was pleased with the outing, he was aware at all times that he was not back in the majors.
It is impossible for a player to feel otherwise here. One becomes hyperaware of the relative smallness of the venue, compared to Citizens Bank Park. The billboards on the outfield walls advertise a landscaping firm, a local lumber company, and Lehigh Carbon Community College. Tiny private planes, either departing from or returning to nearby Lehigh Valley International Airport, put-put above.
For Pivetta, the disparity between where he was and where he had been ran even deeper. Triple-A hitters have holes in their swings -- weaknesses that can be exploited easily by elite pitchers -- or else they would not be in triple A. Pivetta asked himself afterward: How would I have pitched against a major-league lineup? And he concluded that he had wasted a few too many pitches in the third and fourth innings, that he should have still been in the game in the seventh inning, the eighth, the ninth.
“It’s taking the positivity, but being hard on yourself at the same time,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to feel a sense of relief here. I know that I can go up to the big leagues. I know I could start in five days. I know that I can dominate whoever they’re playing — I guess it’s the Detroit Tigers. I know I can do that. I’ve already done it. That’s why I had a job all of last year in the big leagues.”
Yes, he did, and he went 7-14 with a 4.77 ERA, and he returned this year with no guarantees, because this was a different Phillies team with different expectations and less patience, and now here he was. On the field, his teammates took batting practice. Music, a Peter Gabriel song, thumped throughout the park. One of those little planes buzzed overhead. And sitting in the stands, in the first row behind the backstop of a minor-league ballpark, Nick Pivetta tried to persuade you that it will be only a matter of time before he becomes the pitcher he was supposed to be. Maybe he tried to persuade himself, too.
“There are good pitchers in this organization, and there’s competition in this organization, and I don’t have time to let my mental side falter in any way,” he said. “I need to be an A pitcher here until I get called up to the big leagues this year, then an A pitcher throughout the year. And if I falter at any time, who knows what’s going to happen, because it’s irrelevant I got sent down four games into the season. So, what’s to say I couldn’t get sent down any other time? There’s that pressure, but there’s no time to really focus on being sad and mopey and just down on myself.