PHILADELPHIA >> Runners at the corners, game against the Orioles and feel-good homestand hanging in the balance, and the star the Phillies are seeking to make their own standing at the plate, seeking to give them another bitter reason to want him.
Here came Phillies manager Gabe Kapler. Not for one second did you think he was out for anything other than a holiday stroll.
“At that point, I knew we were going to let him have Machado,” Kapler said Wednesday after another afternoon of Citizens Bank Park brilliance by Aaron Nola yielded a 4-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. “It was his game. He earned that right.”
It would have been the perfect moment for Manny Machado to make a South Philly statement.
He had been courted here for two days, first by all members of the media not listing Spanish as their primary language Tuesday, then by members of the 30,000-plus crowd Wednesday firing “We Want Manny!” chants in between choruses of E-A-G-L-E-S and the occasional cheer for a local baseball player.
Little did many of them realize that if Nola, baseball’s best home-park pitcher this year and soon to be the National League co-leader in victories, hung on here, the Phillies would have a good chance to end the night in a position that they hadn’t experienced for the past seven mostly unlucky years.
Ten games above .500 for the first time since 2011.
A record of 47-37, which is a couple of ticks better than their record of July 4, 2008. Yes, back in that memorable World Series season.
“We’ve got a lot of baseball left, but we’re playing good baseball right now,” Nola said. “We’re coming together more and more, I feel like, the more we win. The way we’re finding ways to win, it’s pretty cool, in my opinion, to see everybody contribute.”
He’s been kind of a big part of that, of course.
With Machado the pending free agent and much-targeted super shortstop during the run-up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline one swing away from changing what then was a 2-1 Phillies lead with two outs in the seventh, Nola went to work. As usual, he was on top of the count right away, and finally Machado sliced a pop to right field which was not going to be an easy play.
Right-fielder Nick Williams was coming in ... cautiously.
Second baseman Cesar Hernandez went back-back-back-back ...
“I was about to dive for it, but it was close,” Williams said. “I didn’t want it to drop. It wouldn’t have bounced anywhere ... but he was closer, so I just jumped out of the way. I don’t think either one of us really knew if we could get it. It was kind of one of those ones in a weird spot.”
Hernandez indeed got it with an over-the-shoulder football catch or sorts, or, as reported by the under-animated pitcher: “Cesar made a good play,” Nola said.
So now he still hasn’t lost at Citizens Bank Park since that last start of last season, last Sept. 25, or an eternity according to the Phillies’ growth chart standards.
Nola went seven strong innings against the Orioles, allowing one run on seven hits, with nine strikeouts. He is 8-0 at home, firing to a 1.35 ERA over his last six home starts. Overall he’s 11-2 (with a 2.41 ERA), sharing the lead in NL wins with Jon Lester.
“He generated a lot of swings and misses on that curveball today,” Kapler subsequently analyzed. “He was effective in and out of the zone with it and once again kind of got stronger as the game went on. At the end there, we knew he was the best option to go through the teeth of their lineup.”
And so with Machado ready to make another moment, there was no doubt in Kapler’s mind, nor in Nola’s mind, what was to take place in that pressurized seventh inning.
“I didn’t think he would take me out when I saw him walking out,” Nola said. “I felt I had enough left in the tank. ... It’s good that he sees that in me. That’s what I’ve worked for, to get deep in the game.”
Unlike that first Nola start of the year, way, way back about three months ago, when he removed Nola early in what became a late loss, Kapler has worked to get to know what he has in this team ace.
“It’s the calmness,” Kapler explained. “It’s the no-situation-is-too-big (attitude). I knew about (his) pitches, the changeup and the curve ball and the comebacker heater that he can run back over the plate. I knew he could run it in on right-handed hitters’ hands. I knew about all that stuff. What I didn’t know is how cool and calm he is at all times. I really believe he’s a calming influence on all of us.
“He calms us down and keeps us even and I think that’s a very difficult thing for a man in his 20s to do — calm the clubhouse.”
With Nola going so deep, then Nick Williams adding insurance runs with a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh, it afforded young up-and-comer Victor Arano to earn his first major league save. He went two innings, retiring six of the seven batters he faced, to get it.
So there were a lot of empty seats on the hottest of days this past week at the ballpark. There were also sellouts for Yankees games and fireworks night, and a good crowd on this Fourth of July.
“It’s worth noting in a big way that the fans supported us through this homestand,” Kapler said. “Not just for the Yankees series but for the entirety. I don’t think it’s by accident that we have the best home record in the National League at this point. We get a tremendous amount of support and we’re energized in the dugout by days like today.”
NOTES >> The Phillies’ first two runs, reversing a one-run deficit at that point, came in the fifth, with two Phils in scoring position. That’s when an easy, slow roller by Jorge Alfaro turned into a two-run boo-boo by first baseman Chris Davis. It looked a lot like Billy Buckner, circa 1986. ... Kapler on the chants of “We Want Manny!” when he came to bat: “Well, in those moments, we wanted to beat Manny. That’s what we were thinking about.” ... Phillies are within 1½ games of the division leading Atlanta Braves, and are 5½ games ahead of the free-falling Washington Nationals.