PHILADELPHIA -- Phillies manager Gabe Kapler understands the power of his words.
He uses them to pump up his players -- Nobody works harder. Nobody has a nastier breaking ball. Nobody is a better leader or a better teammate or a better person. Conversely, he uses them to soften slumps, position battles, lost roles and losses. It is why, hours before Wednesday night's 4-0 victory over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park, it stood out that Kapler said, "This is a big game for us tonight, and I think it's worth noting that we're all thinking about it that way."
The win moved the Phillies within a half-game of the first-place Braves in the National League East, and it gave them their first series victory over Atlanta in four attempts this season.
"All we want is first place," catcher Jorge Alfaro said afterward.
It helped to have Jacob Arrieta on the mound. Arrieta has pitched in numerous big games in his career, and he answered the call on Wednesday, striking out seven in 6 2/3 scoreless innings in one of his best starts of the season. Carlos Santana, Cesar Hernandez, Maikel Franco and Nick Williams provided the support with run-scoring hits.
Arrieta has not allowed a run in his last 15 innings at Citizens Bank Park. He is 3-0 with a 0.84 ERA at home.
"Once you play in the postseason, you understand that it could come down to one game," Arrieta said. "Do you get into that Wild Card or win the division? They're all big."
Arrieta came out firing. His sinker averaged 94.2 mph through three innings. It averaged 92.6 mph in his previous eight starts. He generated 14 swings and misses, tying a season high.
"He's a big-game pitcher for a reason," Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "I don't like to tip my hat a lot, but he was good tonight."
"I approach it pretty much the same way every start, regardless of the circumstances," Arrieta said. "I intend to go out there and throw a shutout every time I pitch. And what it takes to do that is, locate multiple pitches for strikes and go out of the zone when necessary to get big outs, swings and misses, runners in scoring position, less than two outs. But when the series is split at the time and we have an opportunity to win a game at home like that to win the series, you pay a little more attention."
So what prompted Kapler to say that a May 23 game was a big one? Managers typically shy away from such talk. They prefer to say that every game is important, whether it's a game against a first-place team or a game against a team on pace to lose 100 games.
There is truth in that, but some games are different. Kapler simply acknowledged it.
"Sometimes you walk into the room and say, 'This feels a little different,'" Kapler said. "I think when we walked into the clubhouse at 11 o'clock, it kind of felt a little different in there. When the players started spilling in, it felt like there was a lot of energy. There was a lot of noise in the clubhouse. I just think there was a lot of energy. I don't know how else to describe it other than there was a feeling in the park."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Kapler pulled Arrieta in the seventh inning with runners on second and third and two outs in favor of Seranthony Dominguez. Dominguez fell behind, 3-1, to pinch-hitter Preston Tucker, and the looming walk meant the scorching-hot Ozzie Albies would get a chance to hit with the bases loaded. Dominguez, though, came back with two 98-mph fastballs to strike out Preston and end the inning.
Count Arrieta among those impressed.
"He's got no fear," Arrieta said. "He's almost got a blank stare on his face, there's no emotion, whether things are going well or poorly. I don't think we've seen him pitch poorly, but it's sinking and cutting in the high 90s -- 97 to 100 mph. He's going to give a lot of people trouble."
With Scott Kingery on second base in the fourth inning, Hernandez knocked an RBI single to left. The hit not only gave the Phils a 2-0 lead, it extended Hernandez's on-base streak to 27 games, which is tied for the longest active streak in baseball.
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Alfaro's arm strength has been on display all week. In the seventh inning, Alfaro caught the speedy Ender Inciarte at second base to the tune of a 89.3-mph throw and a 1.85-second pop time. The pop time is faster than the MLB average (2.03 seconds), and the throw was good for the third-hardest caught-stealing throw in the Majors this season. Alfaro owns the top two spots: 91.2 mph on May 13, and 89.6 mph on April 30.
After the game, Kapler was asked if other teams might be a tad reluctant to steal on Alfaro.
"I think that's starting to happen," Kapler said. "I think that was a huge out for us. ... He's definitely becoming a weapon. He's definitely being game-planned-for at this point."
HE SAID IT
"When [general manager] Matt [Klentak] went out to get Jake Arrieta late [in Spring Training], the thought process was, he's good all-around, right? We've talked a lot about his leadership characteristic. We've talked about the way he's guided some of our young starting pitchers. But really, the reason Matt went out and got him for us, and why we were so happy to have him tonight, is because he can go through a lineup like the Braves -- one of the best lineups in the National League, if not the best to date -- three times." -- Kapler
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Ronald Acuna Jr. was called out at first base after a close play on a grounder to short in the eighth inning. The Braves challenged, but the call stood, and Acuna was out.
After Thursday's off-day, the Phillies host the Blue Jays for the first game of a three-game Interleague series at 7:05 ET on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park. Zach Eflin (1-0, 1.56 ERA) will make his fourth start since being recalled from Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Toronto will be led by right-hander Sam Gaviglio, who is 1-0 with a 0.93 ERA in three appearances (one start) since a callup at the start of the month.