Phillies bear down on 1st place behind Nick Pivetta's 11 Ks

Jim Salisbury | NBC Sports Philadelphia
NBC Sports Philadelphia

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BALTIMORE - The Phillies are a quarter of the way into their season and eight games over .500 for the first time since the last time they made the postseason. That would be 2011 when Jimmy, Chase, Ryan and Cole still roamed Citizens Bank Park.

It's way too early to anoint this team a firm contender, but not to soon to say things are moving in the right direction.

Big time.

"Look at the talent we have," Nick Williams said after Wednesday's 4-1 win over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards (see first take). "We have young guys that want to make an impact, not just for themselves but for the team. We love winning. Some of the guys in here were part of the team last year and it can be tough. We have this youth movement and we're all loving it."

Williams, 24, had an important two-out hit as the Phillies rallied for three runs, two with two outs, in the sixth inning to make a winner out of 25-year-old starter Nick Pivetta.

"That was the best I've seen him look," manager Gabe Kapler said of Pivetta, who survived a first-inning homer en route to 11 strikeouts over seven innings of two-hit, one-walk ball.

Pivetta racked up 23 swinging strikes, 10 on a riding, power fastball up in the zone.

"He attacked the top of the zone with his fastball and the bottom of the zone with his breaking balls," Kapler said. "The fastball up today was everything we had envisioned and imagined it could be and would be. He just had an amazing amount of confidence on the mound, delivering that pitch up in the zone."

"He has the ability to go out and do that every time," catcher Andrew Knapp offered. "He's become very consistent with all four of his pitches. The spin rate on the fastball, you just can't catch up to it at the top of the zone, so when he can do that and throw off-speed off of it, it's a really lethal combination."

Starting pitching has been a strength most of the season. Lately it has gone to a new level with Pivetta, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta all shining. Of that group, only Arrieta is over 25.

Over the last nine games, the starters have given up just eight earned runs in 56 innings for a 1.29 ERA.

"We kind of feed off each other," Pivetta said. "It's fun. It's fun baseball."

Pivetta kept the Phillies in the game long enough until Cesar Hernandez could ignite a three-run rally with a leadoff homer against Andrew Cashner in the sixth. A two-out walk by Carlos Santana and a big hit by Williams after being down 0-2 set the table for two-out RBIs by Maikel Franco and Pedro Florimon (see highlights).

Luis Garcia got two huge outs to bail out Tommy Hunter in the eighth and Edubray Ramos and Hector Neris got the final three outs in the ninth.

And so the Phillies head to St. Louis for four games. They are 24-16 and just an Atlanta loss on Wednesday night away from owning a share of first place in the NL East. The starting pitching has been stellar. The bullpen has more often than not been strong. The hitting has been timely. It sure was Wednesday. It's going to take more of the above to say the Phils are really contenders, but a quarter of the way into the season - and after 96 losses last year - things are most definitely moving in the right direction.

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