PHILADELPHIA -- Jonathan Papelbon had seven blown save opportunities last season. So when he couldn't nail down the lead at Texas on April 2, retiring only one of the seven batters he faced, it caused some understandable concern.
Since then, though, he's had five straight scoreless appearances, including a 1-2-3 ninth with two strikeouts to nail down Thursday afternoon's 1-0 win over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park. In those games, he has four saves and has held opposing hitters to an .063 batting average.
"He's key. He's our closer," said manager Ryne Sandberg. "I like the way he's throwing, and that he continues to improve. In some regards, the fact that he needed to work on his command and pitch, I think that's improved his secondary pitches. In this game he featured his fastball in perfect spots, so it's a good combination. As I say, I see him making good strides.
"He seems to be picking it up a little bit and throwing his fastball. Sat around 93. He's getting into a groove. His velocity is going upwards so that's all good."
Said Papelbon: "I've been able to make adjustments, and that's what this game is about. Hopefully I'll be able to keep doing that. Texas was one of those innings that happens when you're a closer, and you have to put that behind you."
On Thursday he got the save by setting down the middle of the Braves' order: Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton and Chris Johnson.
He became exasperated, however, when asked about his increased velocity. "Why do you guys [media] care about velo so much, man?" he asked. "Does it matter? Do you think it matters? I don't understand that. I mean, if the ball has life at the plate ... it doesn't make one bit of difference. End of story."
Actually, Papelbon's loss of velocity had been an issue going back to last season, and he seemed to admit it earlier this year. When he got a save at Wrigley Field in his first appearance after the implosion in Texas, here's what he said: "You know, as the season goes on, hopefully my velocity will be able to increase. I think everybody usually hits their peak around June. But right now I'm going to focus on just pitching. ... I have a lot to prove."
Howard turns 'day off' vs. lefty into positive
PHILADELPHIA -- Ryan Howard was out of the Phillies' lineup for Thursday afternoon's series finale. It was the first time this season Howard hasn't started, but Ryne Sandberg was quick to caution against reading too much into the decision even though left-hander Alex Wood started for the Braves.
"It's just an opportunity for John Mayberry to get in there and get some at bats to keep him sharp. And it also gets Ryan off his feet for a day game after a night game. That's all it is. Nothing more than that," the manager said.
Howard was 3-for-17 (.176) with eight strikeouts in 19 plate appearances against lefties entering Thursday's action. But he came through against Wood as a pinch-hitter, drawing a walk in the eighth to maintain the Phils' lone rally of the day in a 1-0 victory.
"It was a big at-bat that got the winning base hit up to home plate. So once again, he laid off pitches, he didn't go out of the zone and force anything, he took his walk and then gets to the top of the order," Sandberg said. "So it's a quality at bat right there that really set up the whole thing."
Sandberg had to have liked the approach, stressing the need for Howard to be patient at the plate before Thursday's game.
"Being in the power spot right there he still has the ability to drive in runs with the offense that we have, the guys ahead of him and the guys batting after him. So that's why it's important for him to make the pitchers come to him. A lot of the strikeouts are on balls that are out of the zone. That's something that he's aware of and trying to make the adjustment."
Sandberg showing flexibility with lineup
PHILADELPHIA -- In his first full year as a big league manager, Ryne Sandberg has already proven he's not afraid to shake up his lineup. He started Tony Gwynn Jr. four straight games in center in place of Ben Revere. And he used his third straight different starting third baseman Thursday against the Braves.
Regular Cody Asche was there Monday. After Tuesday's postponement, Freddy Galvis was at the hot corner Wednesday and Jayson Nix started there Thursday.
"It's also a long season. And with the players we have, I like to get them off their feet for a game here or there. So it's kind of the start of that as it makes sense," Sandberg said. "Getting other guys a chance to play. Nix has also sat a number of games so it's a chance for him to play against a left-handed pitcher and I think it makes for a lineup that has right-handed bats in there against this lefty."
Asche, a left-handed hitter, is hitting .184 with 13 strikeouts in 43 plate appearances this season.
• Jonathan Papelbon earned his 290th career save, giving him sole possession of 26th place on the al-time list.
• Second baseman Chase Utley has hit safely in 12 of his 13 games this season. He had two singles Thursday to raise his average to .462.
• Ryan Howard has reached base safely in 25 straight games at Citizens Bank Park with a .396 OBP in those games dating back to last season.
• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee became the first pitcher in history to lose two career games in which he allowed one or no runs and struck out 13 or more, when he did it Wednesday night. The other time was also against the Braves at Citizens Bank Park on Sept. 27, 2013. Overall, it's happened only 19 times in Major League history.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.