It was the top of the third inning, and Kyle Kendrick's command of the strike zone had temporarily gone south. He had just issued a four-pitch walk to Miami's Justin Ruggiano, and a fan seated in the Hall of Fame section along the first-base line had seen enough.

"Get a pitcher up," the fan shouted.

Kendrick's next pitch to Marlins catcher Rob Brantly was also a ball.

"Get a pitcher up," the fan repeated.

A guy seated nearby came to Kendrick's defense.

"He's the best one we've got," the fan said.

Perhaps it was meant as a joke, but even if it was, that does not change the fact that so far this season it is also the truth.

In fact, Kendrick has been the Phillies' best since July of last season, going 12-5 with a 2.57 ERA over a 26-game stretch.

On a staff with two pitchers who have combined for three Cy Young Awards and another with a World Series MVP, Kendrick is the primary reason the Phillies have been able to tread water through their first 29 games of the season.

A week ago, the Phillies arrived in New York having lost three straight games at home to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Kendrick did what an ace does. He blanked the Mets on three hits by pumping strike after strike at the New York hitters. The 4-0 win triggered a three-game sweep at Citi Field.

The Phillies arrived back home Thursday night still smarting from a 20-2, two-game shellacking by the Cleveland Indians.

Again, it was Kendrick who played the role of ace, providing the Phillies with seven strong innings in a 7-2 win over the Marlins. He wasn't nearly as dominating as he had been in New York six days earlier, but whenever he was in trouble he did his best work, and he was in trouble quite often through the first four innings.

In fact, the first two hitters he faced reached base. Former Phillie Juan Pierre walked, and Donovan Solano followed with a single. Pierre stole third base - the 600th steal of his impressive career - and Kendrick was immediately in a first-and-third jam with nobody out.

Poise and maturity took over.

The veteran righthander induced a double-play grounder from Placido Polanco, happily trading a run for two outs. Polanco would be the first of seven straight Miami batters to be retired with runners in scoring position. The last would be Brantly.

After throwing that first pitch out of the strike zone, Kendrick recovered and caught the lefthanded-hitting Brantly looking at a called third strike on a perfectly placed 92 m.p.h. sinker. Kendrick retired 10 of the last 11 batters he faced and left with a 4-2 lead.

"I call it a yahoo - a fastball that comes back," Kendrick said of the pitch to Brantly. "It's a good call right there by [catcher Erik Kratz]. I was thinking the same thing, and we got him."

Hitters are batting .129 (4 for 31) against Kendrick this season with runners in scoring position.

"You don't want to be, but I've been in that situation a lot in my career," Kendrick said. "You've got to make pitches. You just make one pitch at a time, and you try to make quality pitches."

More impressive is the way in which Kendrick can now attack the lefthanded hitters who used to own him. Coming into this season, lefties were batting .293 against him with 96 doubles and 54 home runs. This year, after the three lefties in Miami's lineup went 1 for 9 Thursday, they are batting .236 (17 for 72) against Kendrick.

You know you're going well when you provide your team with a two-run, seven-inning performance and your earned run average still goes up. Kendrick's rose slightly from 2.41 to 2.43. He improved to 3-1 and the team improved to 4-2 in his six starts.

When Kendrick batted for the final time in the sixth inning, he was greeted with polite applause from the crowd of 36,978.

He deserved something more than that because this difficult Phillies start would be a disastrous one without him.

"I've always expected this out of me," Kendrick said. "It hasn't always been there in the past. I've wanted it, and the fans have wanted it, but I do expect it out of me, and hopefully now I can be consistent like that every time out and give us a chance to win the game."