ATLANTA - There was one out in the eighth inning of a Phillies 4-2 victory Tuesday when John Mayberry Jr. stepped onto the Turner Field diamond for the first time. This season is 24 games old, and for all of the consternation over a feeble offense, there are still moments like this.
Mayberry had struck out in 17 of his 49 at-bats, a higher percentage than any player in baseball with as many times at the plate in 2012. Braves lefty Jonny Venters had struck out 17 of the 39 hitters he had faced, posting the highest strikeout-per-nine-innings rate in baseball.
The first pitch was a sinker inside. "His ball moves so much," Mayberry said.
The next sinker was low and away, and Mayberry slapped it into short right field. He sprinted to second base for a double, his first extra-base hit in nine days.
"If you get a lucky hit, that can definitely turn you around," manager Charlie Manuel said. "It's one of the best feelings in baseball."
Two batters later, Mayberry scored the eventual winning run when Placido Polanco swung and missed at a wild pitch for strike three. Yes, these Phillies are taking small ball to its smallest.
While the results of 24 games could not predict the Mayberry-Venters encounter, it prompts other rational observations. For example: As poorly as these Phillies have played, they sit 2 1/2 games back of the first-place Washington Nationals, who have their own injury concerns and offensive plagues.
The Phillies are treading water at 12-12, and that was about all that could be expected in the interim.
"We still have a lot to do," Cole Hamels said. "We were able to get a lot of big hits. But we have to do it early on and keep putting the pressure. We just can't get a few runs and then score when things get tight again."
No, it's not as if the Phillies overwhelmed Atlanta with an offensive barrage. They scored twice off the stingy Venters, who had not allowed a run in 8 2/3 innings this season, and the only ball hit hard smacked the pitcher's foot. The Phillies have won five of their last seven and it is not because of power. The right balls have found the right holes at the right times.
There is near-immaculate pitching, too, a trend perpetuated by Hamels on Tuesday. He allowed two runs in six innings without his finest stuff. He gave way to a bullpen that momentarily blew Monday's win but unquestionably secured Tuesday's. It helped that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez filled out a lineup card without Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward.
Manuel pointed to his new (old) leadoff hitter, Jimmy Rollins, as inspiration for the last two late-inning victories.
"We got what I call leadership play from Rollins," Manuel said. "He had a good mind-set tonight; he was having fun in the game. He put a lot in to helping us win the game. At the plate, how he went about it in the field, in the dugout. He was having fun playing."
When asked why Rollins can't be like that nightly, Manuel quipped, "He might have to count his money every now and then."
There were tense moments before Mayberry's clutch double. The Braves ultimately sliced Hamels for two runs and his night was over after six innings. Hamels said he did not expect Atlanta to demonstrate as much patience. He threw only 64 strikes in his 108 total pitches. He surrendered the lead in the sixth, but it could have been worse.
At 7:58 p.m., 48 minutes into the game, the Phillies finally had a hit. Polanco singled; Hunter Pence turned a grounder to right into a hustle double; and Ty Wigginton shot one to left that rolled under Martin Prado's glove for two runs.
They scratched out two more, enough for victory, and Manuel could joke. Afterward, in his office, he ripped his lineup card in half. Another day waits.
"I felt like," Manuel said, "we definitely deserved to win the game."