Phil Sheridan: Phillies fans can breathe easier

Posted: April 05, 2012

PITTSBURGH - Exhale, Philadelphia.

The spring training of achy knees and infected heels, of gritted teeth and wrung hands, is finally behind the Phillies. They traveled across the commonwealth to play a game that counted, No. 1 of 162 on your pocket schedule. They were without the power of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, and their offense was as low-wattage as in your worst fever dream.

Freddy Galvis, tasked with replacing Utley at second base, grounded into two inning-ending double plays. The team as a whole managed just one extra-base hit, a double by John Mayberry Jr., and seven lonely singles. After all the talk about being more patient at the plate and moving runners along, the Phillies drew just two walks and got just one runner past second base.

Ah, but that runner scored. And when Ty Wigginton - filling in for Howard - slid home in the seventh inning, Roy Halladay had all the offense he needed.

Phillies 1, Pirates 000 000 000.

These Phillies became winners because hitters like Howard and Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Jayson Werth, had the right stuff. For now, at least, they are going to have to win because they have the right staff. Not only are Halladay and the rest superb pitchers, they are fiercely competitive men who see the lineup as half-full rather than half-empty.

"The pressure comes from you guys," said Jonathan Papelbon, who recorded his first save with a perfect ninth inning. "I think it's something that we take and put on our shoulders and go out there and try to pitch and play defense and win."

Halladay's fifth pitch of the season was a curveball that didn't break. He watched it sail over his head and into center field for a leadoff single by Alex Presley. The very next pitch was hit about 10 feet, just far enough down the third-base line that catcher Carlos Ruiz couldn't make a play.

After weeks of worrying about the hitters, this was a most unwelcome start by the ace di tutti aces: two on, none down, and Andrew McCutchen stepping into the box.

McCutchen hit a sharp grounder that Rollins snagged. He threw to Galvis, the 22-year-old converted shortstop making his major-league debut at an unfamiliar position. He pivoted and gunned down McCutchen for the double play. Neil Walker hit an easy fly ball to Mayberry in left.

That was it. The only Pirates who reached base after that were hit by Halladay pitches. No more hits. No walks. With no margin for error, Halladay simply refused to make any.

"Any time you go out there thinking I can't give up a run, or two runs, it affects the way you pitch," Halladay said. "For me, it's just keeping it simple and going out and trying to make pitches and keep as many runs off the board as possible."

He kept them all off. The only question was whether Halladay would finish the shutout or manager Charlie Manuel would bring in his new closer for the ninth. This early in the season, with Halladay not having thrown as many pitches as the 92 he threw Thursday, Papelbon was the right call.

Of course, it was up to Papelbon to make the decision look good. After eight innings of Halladay's dizzying array of cutters and curves and change-ups, Papelbon reared back and threw mid-90s fastballs on every pitch. Two grounders and a strikeout later, his work was done and so were the Pirates.

The Phillies aren't going to be able to win many games by scoring a single run. Even this pitching staff can't be expected to throw a shutout every day.

But exhale, anyway. The offense may never be as explosive as it was in 2007 and 2008, but it will be better than this. Manuel will tinker with the lineup until the tumblers fall into place. Juan Pierre will add his knack for getting on base and making things happen. Rollins, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, and Placido Polanco - professional hitters all - will find their swings.

They used to score like a football team. Now their scores look more like the other kind of football. But soccer scores are fine as long as your guys have one more than the other guys.

"We've been playing close games for a long time," Manuel said. "We've proved we can play in close games. Do I like them? I like them when we have a big lead."

Eventually, Howard will return. Eventually, Utley will return. The season stretches on, through the spring and into the summer and beyond. By September, when the Phillies are pushing for a sixth consecutive division title, this slim victory will be a faint memory.

No. 1 of 162 "was a good game for us," Halladay said. "Everything went the way we wanted."

Mostly, this slim victory allowed everyone to exhale. For now, at least.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Sheridanscribe. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan.

 

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