The Phillies piled on the runs early last month as a masked Joe Girardi spoke to the broadcast team during an exhibition game against the New York Yankees at BayCare Park. As much as he appreciated all the Grapefruit League runs, the Phillies’ second-year manager did not want to talk about his offense.
“Let’s talk about the pitching,” he said. “Pitching is what wins.”
Good thing Charlie Manuel was a lot more than a socially distanced 6 feet away from Girardi because he might have considered them fighting words. Everybody around here knows that Charlie loves warm hitting weather and crooked numbers.
“When you have good pitching, you have a chance every time you go out there,” Girardi said after watching great pitching from Zack Wheeler and the bullpen during the Phillies’ 4-0 win over the Atlanta Braves Saturday at Citizens Bank Park. “I like our pitching. I like the arms that we have and I like the different looks in our bullpen. Pitching is really where it is at.”
Girardi actually ran his bulletproof theory by Manuel down in Clearwater, but did not necessarily gain a convert.
“I said, ‘Man, Charlie, pitching is really important,’ " Girardi said before attempting to impersonate Manuel’s friendly Southern drawl. “He goes, ‘Well, Joe, it’s a lot easier to win when you score a lot of runs, you know.’ When they won with Charlie, they had really good pitching, and if you look at teams that win, they have really good pitching.”
Girardi is right. Pitching was, is, and always will be king in the game of baseball, and if the Phillies are going to prove a lot of people wrong this season, it will be because of their better-than-perceived starting rotation and an improved bullpen.
The bullpen part of that statement still needs to be proved, but after just two games the relief corps has provided 5 1/3 scoreless innings, including two perfect ones from the duo of Archie Bradley and Hector Neris on Saturday.
“We in the dugout can feel the confidence from the guys coming in from the bullpen,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said after contributing a two-run double to the victory. “They’re attacking the hitters right away and that is noticeable in the field and in the dugout. When guys come out and show their stuff right away and attack guys, it doesn’t feel the way that it has in the past. We haven’t seen everybody, but the guys that we have seen have been pretty electric so far.”
Electric would also have been a good word to describe the way Aaron Nola pitched in the season opener against the Braves’ potent lineup, but Wheeler’s performance Saturday went beyond that.
If he didn’t have the Braves’ attention at the start, he should have by the time Ronald Acuna returned to the dugout after swinging through a 99 mph fastball to start the game. An inning later, Travis d’Arnaud reached base on a solidly hit single to center field. He was the Braves’ only baserunner. Wheeler went seven innings and struck out 10.
Charlie Morton matched him scoreless inning for scoreless inning through four, but another prophetic statement from Girardi surfaced in the bottom of the fifth. Girardi said at the start of spring training he was looking forward to the Phillies’ pitchers hitting in 2021 because he thought he had a pretty good group led by Wheeler, who batted .211 two years ago for the Mets and slugged his first career home run against the Phillies.
With two outs and the game still scoreless in the bottom of the fifth, Wheeler went to the plate hunting a fastball from Morton. He got it and even though it was way out of the strike zone, the Phillies pitcher lined the ball into center field for an RBI single. Two batters later, Hoskins delivered his two-run double by hitting a 1-2 inside fastball down the left-field line. The Phillies added a run the next inning when Wheeler doubled down the left-field line to score Alec Bohm with two outs.
“Easy game, right?” a laughing Hoskins said. “The guy took 18 months off from hitting and in his first game he gets a couple of knocks.”
It was enough to make a manager smile, and Girardi looked elated as he sat down for the postgame Zoom call.
“He’s a really good-hitting pitcher and to have two, two-out RBIs, it was huge,” Girardi said. “I don’t know if you can say enough great things about what he did today. His stuff was as good as it has been.”
Wheeler has somewhat of a matter-of-fact personality, but he does believe the Phillies’ rotation might be underrated in a division filled with some outstanding starters. He said he fed off Nola’s impressive effort in the opener and he’s hoping Zach Eflin does the same in the series finale Sunday against the Braves.
“It’s friendly competition,” Wheeler said. “You go out there and see a guy pitch very well and you go out there and try to beat it. And I hope Eflin goes out there and beats me. It’s what makes a starting staff great, when you go out and try to beat the person in front of you. That’s how you keep the line moving.”
It will be difficult for Eflin to match the masterpiece Wheeler delivered, but even something close would likely give the Phillies a feel-good, season-opening sweep of the team that has won the National League East three years in a row.