Surging Phillies are just starting to figure out how good they are

PHILADELPHIA -- Jake Arrieta was happy to assume the role of veteran sage to the Philadelphia Phillies' young pitchers when he signed a $75 million contract in March. Among the points Arrieta likes to stress: the importance of a pitcher stepping off the rubber, taking a deep breath, and collecting his emotions when everything seems to be spiraling out of control.

The advice registers well enough when Arrieta shares it in the clubhouse. But it resonates so much more when he’s putting it into practice on the mound.

Things threatened to go south quickly for the Phillies on Wednesday night when four straight Arizona Diamondbacks reached base against Arrieta on an error, a broken-bat single and two walks to start the fourth inning. But Arrieta shut down the first-place Diamondbacks after that, and Aaron Altherr's three-run homer off Zack Greinke in the sixth gave the Phillies a 5-3 win at Citizens Bank Park.

“Actions speak a lot louder than words,” Arrieta said. “Any time you can put into motion what you’re trying to emphasize to these guys, it plays a huge role in their development. I don’t intend to be a preacher. But there are a lot of things I regard very highly as a starting pitcher that I’m trying to emphasize to these guys, and they’re starting to grasp it and run with it.

“I’m trying to instill in the guys on this team that it’s part of the job description as a starting pitcher to be able to pick guys up and tell them after the fact, 'Hey, I’ve got you.' Everybody out there is doing their best. They’re not trying to make errors. You just have to have their back when things like that happen.”

After a 1-4 start, the Phillies improved to 15-8 and moved within a half-game of the first-place New York Mets in the National League East. While it’s a little early to be talking about “statement’’ victories, this game provided a lesson in the importance of persistence and composure for a young Philadelphia team that’s learning on the fly.

The Phillies made three errors on Wednesday night and have now committed 22 errors as a team in their first 23 games. Cesar Hernandez was thrown out on an attempted steal of second base, and Carlos Santana ran into an out on a garden variety 8-3-6-4-3 relay in the third inning. But the Phillies rallied to beat Greinke behind the climactic big fly from Altherr, who has found a way to squeeze 15 RBIs out of 10 hits in April. His .172 batting average is offset by a .375 mark (6-for-16) and a 1.349 OPS with runners in scoring position.

“I think he smelled it,” said Phillies manager Gabe Kapler. “He understands the big moment. They were flashing his stats with runners in scoring position up on the scoreboard. We knew when it left the bat that it was screaming. We just weren’t sure if it was going to get over the wall. We were all pretty fired up in the dugout. There were a lot of high-fives.”

It was only natural to get 2015 flashbacks in advance of Wednesday’s matchup. That was the year Arrieta, Greinke and Clayton Kershaw took part in an epic NL Cy Young race, and Arrieta closed with enough of a rush to relegate Greinke to second place even though he logged a 1.66 ERA.

“I love that part of the game -- pitching, defense and the fine art of game-planning,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said in the dugout 90 minutes before the first pitch. “I get a chance to watch Zack do that every fifth day. Every time he takes the mound, he’s always prepared. All our guys are, but today is a little more special because he’s going up against somebody that’s pitched and performed at the same level he has. I turn into a baseball fan just like everybody else.”

Greinke’s average fastball velocity of 88.8 mph this season ranks 93rd among 95 qualifying big league starters according to FanGraphs, but he can still frustrate opposing lineups with pinpoint command and a four-pitch repertoire. He throws his slider and changeup almost 45 percent of the time.

“Obviously, the velocity is not where it used to be,” said Altherr, “but he knows how to pitch. Very, very rarely does he miss a spot. It’s just a matter of focusing on what you want to do against him and waiting for your pitch.”

On this night, Greinke made the mistake of throwing back-to-back sliders with two runners on base in the sixth, and Altherr cranked the second one over the center-field fence for the game winner.

The Phillies wouldn’t have been close enough to strike if not for the example set by Arrieta, who’s showing a knack for practicing what he preaches. Four starts and 24⅔ innings aren't much of a sample size, but his manager is already seeing an impact that transcends the numbers.

“One of the things I’ve been saying, and I believe in my heart, is that Jake is one of the best leaders I’ve ever been around,” Kapler said. “He has a way of modeling the kind of behavior that we want to see from our young pitchers and our players in general. He just does it the right way, and I think he’s earned the respect of this clubhouse, the young pitchers, our staff and the fans in Philadelphia. Everybody.”