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April 30, 2016

Galvis, bullpen lead red-hot Phillies to 8th win in 9 games

In the 11 days since Odubel Herrera has managed to cement himself not only as the Phillies leadoff hitter but as one of the most productive top of the order hitters in baseball, too, he’s been asked about his comfort level there.

Herrera wouldn’t say it was his favorite spot to hit in a lineup. He likes first and third, he said.

But he does like, he said, the “responsibility” of being the guy at the front of the line. And, just by watching the way he plays – on the bases, in center field, in the batter’s box – the energy level he brings seems conducive to being the guy who ignites the offense.

Herrera may have let that energy and aggressiveness get the best of him on Saturday night, when, with two runners on scoring position, two outs, and Ryan Howard at the plate in a tie game, he broke for him on a wild pitch that barely got away from Cleveland Indians catcher Roberto Perez. Herrera made a valiant effort on the slide, but was out, killing the rally.

Whether or not it truly was a bad play was debatable, since Howard was down two strikes.

“It was real close,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He got a pretty good jump. The catcher had to dive back to get him. I don’t have a problem with aggressive mistakes, even though it was costly at the time.”

And this is just how well the Phillies are playing right now: they can take chances – make those “aggressive mistakes” – and not let it derail them from pulling out a close game.

Freddy Galvis, who bats behind Herrera in Mackanin’s lineup, dropped a blooping, two-out single down the right field line in the seventh inning, scoring David Lough, to bring in the go-ahead run in the Phillies 4-3 win on Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park.

Galvis drove in three of the Phillies runs: he followed a Herrera single with a booming home run in the first inning.

The win was the fifth straight for the Phillies and their eighth in their last nine games. Only four teams in the National League have more wins than the 14-10 Phillies: the Cubs, Pirates, Nationals and Mets, all teams that were expected to contend for postseason spots this year, not as a favorites for the No.1 pick in the 2017 draft, as most pegged the Phillies.

Fun (and meaningless) fact: the Phillies would be in first place if they played in the NL West or AL West instead of the NL East.

“It’s a good feeling, especially after the 0-4 start and coming off last year,” Mackanin said. “We figured that our pitching was going to be better, but after the first four games it didn’t look like it. But everyone settled into place. Sure, it’s a great feeling – winning games and having a winning record. We’re on a roll right now, I’m hoping we can continue into St. Louis after we leave here tomorrow.”

After the conclusion of the season’s first month, the Phillies are four games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2011 season, when they won a franchise-record 102 games. These Phillies won’t win 102 games. But, for the first time in a long time, they've been competitive, and fun, too.

It’s mostly the result of starting pitching that’s kept the team in the majority of the 24 games they’ve played in the season’s opening month.

The starting rotation’s 3.55 ERA is fourth-best in the National League, again, right up there with the league’s best teams. Only the Cubs, Nationals, and Mets  have better ERAs from their starters.

There’s more: the Phillies pitching staff as a whole entered Saturday with a strike rate of 10.42 strikeouts-per-nine innings. No matter what happened in the final game of the month, it already clinched the mark for the best strikeout rate for a pitching staff in baseball history in April. (The 2013 Boston Red Sox, with a 9.94 strikeouts-per-nine innings, were the previous record holder).

“Obviously we’re happy, but we’re all looking to get better,” Jerad Eickhoff said of the team’s surprising first month. “We can all work in different aspects. … We’re not content with where we’re at. We’re trying to be the best, the best in the National League. We’re happy with where we’re at now, but like I said, we’re working to get better.”

Eickhoff, one of a trio of young, strikeout-happy arms in the rotation, took his fifth trip of the season to the mound on Saturday night. The 25-year-old right-hander was coming off the worst start of his career, when his final inning at Miller Park last Sunday snowballed into a six runs.

Eickhoff wasn’t perfect Saturday – he made a 3-0 lead disappear – but he recovered from a shaky, 27-pitch fifth inning with a perfect frame in the sixth, striking out two of the three batters he faced.

“He wasn’t at his best,” Mackanin said. “But he gave us a quality start. He really battled.”

The bullpen quartet of Andrew Bailey, Elvis Araujo, Colton Murray, and Jeanmar Gomez threw three shutout innings – with an assist from Peter Bourjos on the game’s final, wild out.

With runners on second and third and two outs, Cleveland leadoff hitter Jason Kipnis ripped a screaming line drive toward the right field wall. Bourjos, who entered the game with a .179 OBP, 250th in baseball among the 252 players with at least 50 plate appearances, somehow broke back and made a running catch as he headed for the fence.

“I don’t think too many players would make that catch he made in right field,” Mackanin said.

Bourjos also worked a walk and moved Lough into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt before Galvis’s game-winning hit. But he’s still hitting .164 with two walks and 22 strikeouts in 71 plate appearances.

“You make a catch in the ninth inning to save the game, it makes you feel a little bit better,” Bourjos said. “It’s something I take a lot of pride in, my defense. I also take pride in my offense and that needs to start coming along. Have some good at-bats, hit the ball hard and help the team that way, too.”

It may have been the most fitting way to end the first month on the Phillies schedule: with a little help from Bourjos, a surprise bullpen that nearly everyone had written off three weeks ago nailed down the latest victory for perhaps the most surprising team in baseball in April, a team nearly everyone had written off before they showed up to spring training.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21