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May 14, 2017

Surprisingly, a lot for Phillies to feel good about following plucky win in Washington

WASHINGTON – The Phillies entered Sunday, a day when they had a split doubleheader scheduled against the best team in the National League, with just two wins in the last two weeks. But you wouldn’t have known that with the energy in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park in between games.

Jeremy Hellickson didn’t have his best stuff, but was able to crack a smile when he thought about how “awesome” the bullpen pitched when he exited and with the offense’s ability to post up in the ninth.

Maikel Franco, who has been begging for a hit of any kind, was able to laugh when someone held two fingers a couple inches apart to show how close he was to hitting a game-tying home run in the ninth.

Tommy Joseph was handing out nicknames. “Stretch” for Aaron Altherr, “Mikey” for Franco, and “The Hammer” for catcher Cameron Rupp. Most of those nicknames have been around for some time, but Joseph used them affectionately following one of the more important wins for the Phillies in the first six weeks of the season, a victory that helped drive home the fact that they probably haven’t played anywhere nearly as bad as the 14-20 record they brought into the nightcap of Sunday’s doubleheader.

Jospeh kept his torrid May going with a solo home run to put the Phillies on the scoreboard in the seventh, Altherr led off the ninth with his sixth home run in his last nine games, and the rest of the lineup chugged along to keep a ninth-inning rally alive long enough to break down the Nats’ beleaguered bullpen in a 4-3 win.

After Franco and Rupp followed Altherr’s home run by ripping doubles to tie the game, Ty Kelly ripped a run-scoring single to give the Phillies the lead for good. Hector Neris collected his first save since April 27.

The Phils trailed Gio Gonzalez and the Nats 3-0 entering the seventh inning and then, somehow, made a comeback win look easy.

“That’s how it’s been all year against these guys,” Altherr said. “We never feel out of it, no matter what the score is because we know their bullpen has been struggling a little bit. You just never give up, never quit, and keep fighting.”

“A much-needed win, obviously,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “Especially with Scherzer pitching tonight.”

“Scherzer,” of course, being Max Scherzer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner who is 7-0 with a 1.87 ERA with 81 strikeouts and 14 walks in 10 starts against the Phillies since signing with Washington prior to the 2015 season. The Nationals are 9-1 against the Phillies in those games.

But, back to the good tidings in the Phillies clubhouse on Sunday afternoon. Scherzer could wait. The Phils had more than a couple of reasons to savor a victory.

 • After searching for production from the middle of their lineup for the season’s first three weeks, the Phillies are finally getting it in May. Altherr (1.571) and Joseph (1.386) rank first and second in all of baseball, in OPS this month. And Cameron Rupp’s OPS this month (1.041) is second only to Buster Posey (1.215) among NL catchers in May.

“It’s huge,” Altherr said. “It’s hard to win games when it’s one guy swinging it well. The more guys we can get swinging it well, the more games we’re going to win.”

“That’s what we need,” Mackanin said. “We need that middle of the lineup to be consistent and drive in runs. You look at (Washington’s) lineup, and not in any particular order, they’ve got (Daniel) Murphy, they’ve got (Anthony) Rendon, they’ve got (Ryan) Zimmerman, they’ve got (Bryce) Harper. … Every time those guys come up they put fear in you. It’s like, ‘Uh oh.’ That’s where we need to get to.”

The Phillies are likely long way away off from matching the Nats in All-Star caliber, middle-of-the-order bats. But, halfway through May, they’re holding their own.

 • The bullpen, the biggest area of concern during the team’s slide in the last two weeks, has been quite good in the last 24 hours. Take away Edubray Ramos' fat fastball to Bryce Harper (and, yes, we know you cannot literally take it away, it was a big deal) and the ‘pen has posted seven shutout innings against a pretty formidable Washington lineup in the first two games of the series.

Yes, it’s two games. But you have to start somewhere. Joely Rodriguez did that by pitching himself out of some trouble he created on Sunday and Neris showed off a ninth-inning mentality when he bounced back from a leadoff single to record a pair of groundouts (including one against Zimmerman) to close out the game. During the Zimmerman at-bat, Neris showed off the splitter that made him one of the NL’s best eighth-inning relievers a year ago.

 • And, then there was the record. No, not the aforementioned 14-20 mark overall. Following Sunday afternoon’s win, the Phillies were 5-6 against the Nationals this season.

“That’s how it’s been all year against these guys. We never feel out of it, no matter what the score is because we know their bullpen has been struggling a little bit. You just never give up, never quit, and keep fighting.”

Given the respective expectations, payrolls, and rosters, and simply how well Washington has played in the season’s first six weeks, and it’s pretty impressive the Phils entered the nightcap with an opportunity to even up the season series. (And, an aside, it’s kind of insane the Phillies have had to play Washington in 12 of their first 35 games of the season).

“You’ve heard me complain about the tough schedule, but this is one of the best hitting teams in baseball and we’re 5-6 against them,” Mackanin said. “It’s nice to beat these guys. And they know we play them tough. It was good to win that first one, now hopefully Scherzer isn’t at his best.”

Following a plucky victory in the matinee, it was easy for everyone in the Phils’ clubhouse to be optimistic.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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