ATLANTA — Dallas Keuchel did not need to even turn around on Tuesday night to know where his grooved two-seam fastball was headed.
Six days earlier, Keuchel said the Phillies’ front office should be second-guessing themselves for not signing him after he dominated their lineup at Citizens Bank Park. But Tuesday night, it was Keuchel who was doing the second-guessing in the fourth inning of a 5-4 Phillies win as he turned his back to Rhys Hoskins’ opposite-field homer.
The Phillies scored five runs against Keuchel in the fourth inning at SunTrust Park, allowing their slim playoff dreams to live on. Hoskins hit a two-run homer, Scott Kingery scored on a ground out by Cesar Hernandez, and Jose Pirela hit a two-run homer for his first major-league homer since last September.
They trail the Brewers and Cubs — who are tied for the National League’s second wild-card — by four games with 13 to play. It was a strong start to an 11-game road trip, but the Phillies will need more than just one good night to buck the odds and reach October.
“I think, first and foremost, we still have odds and we know that,” Hoskins said. “Sure, we know they may be long and we have a lot of work to do, but we’re still in it.”
Vince Velasquez overcame a rough beginning to give the Phillies five solid innings. Velasquez allowed two runs in the first, but allowed just three base runners in the next four innings. Hector Neris overcame a rough beginning to the ninth to give the Phillies a save. Neris allowed a leadoff homer and put the tying run on third base before escaping. The story of the game, manager Gabe Kapler said, was composure.
“We know where we are in the standings. We know what the numbers say. But that’s not what we’re paying attention to right now,” Kapler said. “We’re paying attention to fighting for each other all the way through the finish line.”
The Phillies chased Keuchel after he allowed five runs in five innings. Last week, he allowed just one in six innings while striking out eight in South Philly. The lefthander signed a one-year deal with the Braves in June after every other team passed on him. The Phillies could have used him this season as their starting rotation has a 4.71 ERA since Keuchel debuted with the Braves. Take away Aaron Nola — the only pitcher Keuchel could not replace — and that mark is nearly a run higher.
“I don’t even read up on that stuff, to be honest with you,” Velasquez said of Keuchel’s comments. “I deleted Twitter. I did. You have to learn to accept what people say and control what you can control. They’ll say otherwise if you learn how to do that. Whatever happens, happens. He can say whatever he wants to say. We’re a team and he’s on the other side. That’s what we’re about.”
Starting pitching was not the Phillies’ problem on Tuesday night. Velasquez outpitched Keuchel. He started to command his curveball after the first inning and kept the Phillies alive. He allowed just the two runs in five innings, struck out eight, walked two, and allowed five hits. Velasquez easily could have folded in the first inning.
“It was impressive,” Hoskins said. “A huge step for him mentally to know that in a big, big game in a hostile environment he can kind of reel it back in. We’ve seen it go the opposite way. For him to give us a strong, strong outing the way he did is really cool to see.”
The Phillies had just one hit against Keuchel on Tuesday night through three innings and it was a single by Velasquez. Tuesday night was starting to feel a lot like last week. But then Bryce Harper reached on an infield single with one out in the fourth.
Hoskins followed with his first opposite-field homer of the season. Four batters later, the Phillies had five runs against the pitcher they could not figure out just six days earlier.
“I think he did a really good job of executing the game plan,” Kapler said of Hoskins. “The game plan was make sure that Keuchel was in the middle. Make sure he was up in the zone and Rhys got a good pitch that he could drive and he didn’t miss it.”
Keuchel may have been second-guessing himself on Tuesday night, but he can take comfort in knowing that he’ll likely be soaked sometime this week in champagne as the Braves celebrate their all-but-clinched division title. They can wrap up their second straight National League East crown before the Phillies leave town. If so, it will be the second straight year the Phillies have to watch the Braves celebrate.
The Phillies beat Keuchel on Tuesday, but he’s the one with the ticket for October. And if the Phillies miss the playoffs, they’ll have plenty of time to second-guess themselves. For now, they’ll stay focused on the final weeks of September.