PART OF THE appeal of a spot in the rotation is the opportunity for routine that it provides. Pitchers often cite their desire for regularity when comparing the life of a starter against that of a reliever. When Roberto Hernandez took the mound yesterday, nothing about the previous week had been routine. His most recent start had come 9 days earlier. In the time since, he had made one appearance out of the bullpen. He did not learn that he would be starting yesterday until Saturday afternoon, when Cole Hamels was scratched with the flu. We learned something about Hernandez yesterday: It takes a lot to throw him off kilter.
"Not a big deal," the big righty said of his unconventional schedule after he logged 7 1/3 scoreless innings in a 1-0 Phillies victory over the Nationals.
The victory itself was a big deal, or at least as big a deal as an early-May victory can get for a baseball team. The Phillies took two out of three game from a team that outscored them 94-56 in 19 games last season and entered yesterday a half-game behind the Braves for first place in the National League East. The win moved the Phillies to 15-14 on the season, with home games against the Blue Jays today and tomorrow before a five-game road interlude through Toronto and the New York Mets.
Early on, the Phillies looked like they were going to need plenty more than the one run that Jimmy Rollins manufactured in the first inning with a one-out triple, which set up an RBI single by Chase Utley. A strong, steady wind was blowing left to right and Hernandez was struggling to find the strike zone. Of his first 12 pitches, only five went for strikes. He allowed three of the first four batters he faced to reach base, two via walk. If not for an ill-advised baserunning decision by former Phillie Kevin Frandsen that resulted in an out at third, Hernandez might not have escaped the first unscathed. Yet by the time the eighth inning arrived, Hernandez was still on the mound, and the Phillies' 1-0 lead was still enough.
It might sound strange to say that the Phillies were beneficiaries of strong defensive play on an afternoon when they botched two plays in the infield (although one, a chopper that kicked off the heel of Jayson Nix's glove at third base, was ruled a hit). But Ben Revere tracked down two well hit-balls on the run in centerfield, and Marlon Byrd made a sliding catch of a sinking line drive in the seventh inning, part of a run of 10 straight batters retired by Hernandez, all in the midst of a steady wind that had the potential to turn any fly ball into a circus act.
"That wind was crazy today," Revere said. "All around it was good defense and pitching today."
The good pitching extended to the bullpen, where Ryne Sandberg played matchups to get the final two outs of the eighth with the tying run in scoring position, sending Mike Adams out for his third straight day of work, this time to face Jayson Werth, and then calling on Antonio Bastardo. Adams retired his man on a groundout to second, then Bastardo walked lefty Adam LaRoche before striking out Anthony Rendon looking at a fastball at the knees.
Jonathan Papelbon shut down the ninth for his 10th save in 11 opportunities. Since allowing three runs in his second outing of the season, Papelbon has logged 11 consecutive scoreless innings.
The Phillies are confident that if their bullpen can find some degree of consistency, they are poised to spend the next month putting some distance between themselves and .500. Of their next 26 games, 18 are at home.
"I think it's a good month for us to kind of get back on track and hopefully make a push and see if we can't separate ourselves," Adams said.