When Nick Pivetta was demoted to the minor leagues in April, he decided to keep living in Philadelphia and commute 60 miles each way to the Lehigh Valley. In those quiet moments alone on the Northeast Extension, he surely envisioned better days ahead.
Saturday, at last, reality mirrored the dream.
Making his third start since being recalled by the Phillies, Pivetta dominated the Cincinnati Reds. He was both overpowering and efficient in scattering six hits, not issuing any walks, retiring 17 consecutive batters at one point, and tossing the first complete game of his 65-start career in a 4-1 victory at Citizens Bank Park that was fueled by another big hit from scorching-hot newcomer Jay Bruce.
In short, Pivetta was everything that the Phillies believe he can be.
"Nick came out and was the pitcher that we all anticipated he might be at the beginning of the season," manager Gabe Kapler said after the Phillies won their fourth game in a row. "I think the experience of being back in [triple-A] Lehigh Valley was a humbling one for him, and since then he's done exactly what we've asked him to do."
Specifically, that means pounding the strike zone with his three pitches, getting ahead of hitters, putting them away when he has a chance, and otherwise being content to get soft contact early in counts and pitching deeper into games.
Mission accomplished, on all counts.
“I think it’s just better command of the strike zone?” said Pivetta, who was so ecstatic about his 105-pitch performance that he swore in his postgame television interview on the field. “I’m able to throw my breaking ball for strikes and for balls when I need to and also able to throw it later in counts in hitter-friendly counts. I think that’s been key.”
It was a continuation of what he started six days earlier at Dodger Stadium when he shut out the best team in the National League for six innings only to be lifted for a pinch hitter in a scoreless game.
Pivetta’s fastball crackled at 96 mph against the Reds, but he also snapped off wicked curveballs and sliders. He got 15 swings and misses, seven with the curveball. And rather than trying to strike out every batter, he was content to get quick outs, even breezing through the fifth inning on six pitches by getting Jesse Winker, Josh VanMeter, and Jose Peraza to ground out in succession.
If not for a bloop single by Reds lead-off man Nick Senzel that led to a first-inning run, Pivetta would be working on a 15-inning scoreless streak. He has retired 57 of 69 batters since allowing three out of four to reach base in the first inning May 28 against the St. Louis Cardinals, his first start back from triple-A. He also hasn’t walked a batter in 15 consecutive innings.
“I think there’s a lot more conviction with some of the pitches that he’s throwing,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said. “There’s been an uptick in tempo, and I think that helps him. It helps us behind him. But I think it just kind of allows for a lot less thought, a lot less second-guessing. He’s not getting in his own head and in his own way.”
J.T. Realmuto agreed. Pivetta has been better about following the catcher’s lead, but he also has executed better. Two-strike pitches that he was leaving over the plate are now being buried low in the strike zone.
"That's a huge difference for him," Realmuto said. "I feel like he's just on the attack more. He's working with the same stuff. He's just doing a great job of getting ahead of hitters and being able to put them away when he gets ahead."
Bruce staked Pivetta to a 2-1 lead with a two-run single in the first inning against Reds starter Tanner Roark. In four starts since being acquired in a trade last Sunday, Bruce has driven in 11 runs, the same total as every other Phillies hitter combined.
"Oh my goodness, he's unbelievable," Realmuto said. "You can make an argument he's won at least four of those games for us."
You can if you’d like, but this victory was all about Pivetta. Just as he imagined on those drives to Allentown, right?
"I mean, no, I just focused more on each day, getting better one pitch at a time, one inning at a time," he said. "If I get ahead of myself, in the past it hasn't gone my way.
“It’s a feat, but there’s still a lot more goals. Live in the moment right now, but continue to work hard. I’ve still got to keep going.”