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May 01, 2016

Streaking Phillies win sixth straight, completing sweep of Cleveland

It’s not so much the names that have changed, although some have, with James Russell no longer here and Andrew Bailey around, Daniel Stumpf suspended and replaced by fellow left-hander Elvis Araujo.

It’s the mentality.

Perhaps more remarkable than the Phillies record, which certainly qualifies as remarkable at 15-10 through the team’s first four weeks, is the strength of the 25-man roster during their current six-game winning streak, and run of winning nine of their last 10 games, is the bullpen. The same bullpen that blew the first two games of the season and sent the Phils into a tailspin right out of the gate the first week of the season, when they lost four straight to begin the year.

“I think they were embarrassed as a group after those first (four) games,” manager Pete Mackanin said.

“It was a dreadful week,” veteran right-hander David Hernandez said. “For me especially, having given up and losing Opening Day like we did. We needed to get our feet under ourselves. I think we’re starting to roll. We’re just trying to out-do each other.”

The Phillies nipped the Cleveland Indians 2-1 on Sunday, completing their second straight sweep, thanks to another dazzling effort from Vince Velasquez.

He threw six shutout innings, holding Cleveland to two hits. Velasquez is 4-1 with a 1.44 ERA through five starts and has held hitters to a .164 batting average, second in the National League behind Chicago’s Jake Arrieta (.151).

Velasquez’s only issue was needing 103 pitches to get through six innings. He struck out six but also walked a season-high four batters; he needed 14 pitches to dispatch of Jason Kipnis for the first out of the sixth inning.

It’s certainly difficult to nitpick when a pitcher delivers six shutout innings instead of seven, but, three weeks ago, it would have been painful for fans, knowing it was another inning the bullpen would have to cover.

But just as they had on Saturday night in relief of Jared Eickhoff, the bullpen came through Sunday, getting the game’s final nine outs. The Phillies bullpen hadn’t allowed a run in 20 consecutive innings before Hector Neris served up a solo home run to Carlos Santana in the ninth inning on Sunday.

It was the longest scoreless streak by a bullpen in the major leagues this season.

“They’re pounding the strike zone,” Mackanin said. “They’re attacking the hitters. They’re not trying to be too fine. That’s what I see.”

Since Mackanin is trying to keep his collection of bullpen arms healthy, he stayed away from Hector Neris and David Hernandez on Saturday night, knowing they had both pitched a lot in the last week. On Sunday, he tried to stay away from right-hander Jeanmar Gomez, who is 8-for-8 in save opportunities but who also had pitched in four of the previous five games, with his team up 2-0 in the ninth.

No problem.

After Hernandez retired six of he seven batters he faced – making it look easy in the process – Neris, who has emerged from spring training roster bubble to potential future closer, gave up a home run but bounced back nicely in getting the game’s final two outs.

The final out was Neris’ 24th strikeout in 15 1/3 innings this season, tying him with Dellin Betances of the New York Yankees for the major league lead in strikeouts by a relief pitcher.

“These guys have got good fastballs,” Mackanin said of his relievers. “If they can get ahead of hitters, they can get them out with their off-speed stuff. Neris, with that splitter, it’s an unhittable pitch, it’s a swing-and-miss pitch. It’s hard to lay off of. I’m excited about everyone we have in the bullpen.”

Handing a 2-0 shutout to the bullpen? Velasquez said it was “nothing but ease” on Sunday afternoon.

Imagine anyone saying that and you believing it as anything other than lip service three weeks ago.

“Don’t change,” Velasquez said. “When you establish that confidence with the guys behind you, it’s fun to watch. David’s doing a phenomenal job and Neris is just lights out. And then Gomez was down today but he’s lights out as well. But I’m not going to single them out. We’re all doing good. We’re all doing our part.”

The Phils did all of their scoring in the third inning on Sunday. Freddy Galvis (who knocked in three of the team’s four runs on Sunday) hit a two-out, run-scoring single and Pete Bourjos scored one batter later when Cleveland pitcher Danny Salazar balked with two strikes on Maikel Franco.

It was the 10th time the Phillies had failed to score more than two runs in a game. As good as the team is playing, they can’t possibly keep it up if they don’t score more, right?

“I choose not to look at it that way,” Mackanin said while going on to admit he’s well aware his offense could be better. “For right now, I choose to believe we’re as good as our record.”

The Phillies improved on Sunday to 8-8 in games when they’ve scored fewer than three runs this season. Last year, they were 9-69 in such games.

With guys like Velasquez, Eickhoff, and Aaron Nola in the rotation, the Phillies are certainly in better shape to win low-scoring games in 2016 than the team was in last summer. It’s difficult to imagine they can keep it up at the current rate, but, after you win for the ninth time in 10 games, you’re going to be a lot more optimistic than pessimistic about the 137 games that remain on the schedule.

“On some teams, sometimes if you don’t have the pitching and they’re scoring six and seven runs and they’re losing games, they get a little – they might complain about the pitchers, and vice versa,” Mackanin said. “Or the pitchers are doing as well as they're doing on certain teams, they complain about the hitters not scoring runs. Well, I haven’t heard a whimper out of anybody as far as that’s concerned.

“Everybody is just going out there and trying to do their job. I think what it means is these guys, they’re like a team. They’re not concerned strictly about what their numbers are. That’s the way I choose to look at it. It’s a team effort.”

Franco's fine

Maikel Franco, the linchpin of a Phillies lineup that’s struggled to score runs regularly this season, was taken out of Sunday’s game as part of a double switch after the sixth inning.

The Phils were leading 2-0 at the time. And, as you may have read above, they’ve struggled to score runs.

Is Franco OK? Yep – Mackanin just wanted to keep Hernandez in the game for two innings and Franco had just made the last out in the previous inning.

“Franco is fine,” Mackanin said. “You know when you double switch, the whole purpose of double-switching is to leave a pitcher in a game. With our bullpen, with as much as they’ve worked in close games with us not scoring a lot of runs, we’ve got to try to use our best guys and keep them in the game for two innings.

“I hated taking him out of the game. But sometimes you have to do it. He was 1-for-9 in the series. He wasn’t really swinging that well anyway, so, to me, it was something I had to do.”

Franco, who has started 24 of 25 games this year, and is in the midst of a 2-for-17 skid at the plate.