Bryan Price, the Phillies’ pitching coach, left the dugout Friday night after Ronald Acuna Jr. flipped his bat and jogged to first base on a five-pitch walk.
Jake Arrieta had avoided trouble through the first five innings of a 5-0 win, but now the Braves had runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth as the righthander tried to navigate their lineup for a third-time. Up to that point, Arrieta looked sharp.
But with his pitch count climbing, his night would be defined by how he handled his adversity in the sixth. His meeting with Price finished, Arrieta threw a first-pitch sinker that Dansby Swanson lined to Didi Gregorius for a smooth double play. Freddie Freeman then battled Arrieta for eight pitches before lining out to Jay Bruce, who charged to the left-center gap to end the inning.
“I’m totally comfortable pitching through situations like that that are uncomfortable because it’s something that’s going to come up time and time again,” Arrieta said. “Even outings when you’re rolling and things are going well, chances are that you are going to find yourself in a situation to minimize damage or pitch around some tough ABs to get out of the inning unscathed. Fortunately enough, I was able to do that tonight.”
The rally was extinguished nearly as fast as it started. Arrieta’s night was finished with six strikeouts, one walk, and just three hits in six innings. He threw 89 pitches and generated six swings-and-misses. It was Arrieta’s first scoreless start since 2018, and he looked sharper on Saturday night than he did anytime last season.
“I thought he threw the crap out of it,” Bryce Harper said. “I mean, his backdoor sinker. I haven’t seen 93 from him in a couple years. To be able to see him really spotting up, if he’s throwing that backdoor sinker and he’s throwing off that with the cutter, he’s very tough. I think when he was really, really good, especially in 2015, he was doing that.
“He was coming inside a little bit but also getting under the hands, like against Dansby I could say, then going backdoor, and then going cutter. He’s just throwing really well right now. He’s healthy. That’s the biggest thing.”
The Phillies know what they have at the top of their rotation with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. They have enough confidence that prospect Spencer Howard can hold his own in the rotation when he arrives on Sunday.
But they did not know what to expect in Arrieta, the pitcher they signed two years ago for $75 million but was slowed last season by bone spurs in his elbow and has posted a league-average ERA over the first two seasons of a three-year contract.
If his first two starts are any indication, Arrieta could be a contributor this season. If so, it could be enough to put the Phillies into October as they would have a steady arm to follow Nola and Wheeler in a rotation capped by Howard and Zach Eflin.
“It could mean a lot,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I know he’s battled injuries the last two years, and it’s difficult to pitch when you have a knee problem or an elbow problem or any problem. It’s difficult to execute pitches. What I’ve seen in the first two starts has been extremely impressive and a lot of execution. He was really sharp again tonight, and it’s really encouraging.”
The bullpen pieced together the final nine outs in a second-straight inspiring effort for a unit that started the season with trouble. Tommy Hunter recorded four outs, and his average fastball velocity improved to 93.7 MPH after sitting at 91.2 MPH on Wednesday night. Jose Alvarez and Deolis Guerra combined for the other five outs.
“I always thought that you didn’t see what a player’s velocity was going to be until about May 1 a lot of times after a normal spring training,” Girardi said. “With a shortened spring training, Tommy Hunter’s was even shorter. So I think you have to give him a chance to get his arm in really good shape. It’s not that it’s out of shape, but he just doesn’t have the arm strength that he would if we had a six-week spring training and a month of the season.”
The Phillies scored four of their five runs in the fourth inning as J.T. Realmuto homered, and Bruce hit a three-run shot. Realmuto’s homer was his fourth in seven games as he begins the truncated 2020 season on a much faster pace than last year. Realmuto needed 26 games to hit four homers in 2019.
Once again, his homer on Saturday was celebrated by Harper acting like he’s signing a check as the fans outside Ashburn Alley chanted “Sign J.T.!” Saturday was just the eighth game of the season, but it’s been enough of a reminder of how important Realmuto is to the team’s playoff chances and how important it is that the team does sign him to a contract extension. He’s arguably their best hitter and is the game’s premier defensive catcher.
“He’s been swinging it extremely well. J.T is super talented,” Girardi said. “He does so many things for this team. As good as he is offensively, he puts his heart and soul into his defense and calling games and studying opposing hitters. J.T. is a player that you don’t have to worry about being prepared. That’s what every manager wants. Players that you know are prepared and are going to do their job. I hope J.T. stays really hot for three months.”
But the eighth game of the season also provided a glimpse into how important Arrieta - the pitcher Realmuto caught - can be to the team’s postseason hopes.