Their starters — Vincent Velasquez (above), Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola — tossed 20 innings, allowed nine hits, three runs, seven walks and struck out 19 batters. Again, the narrow view is that the Phillies have tossed aside an 0-4 start to impressively claw their way to 12-10. The wide view: Think about these guys in a few years.

By Peter Gleason

Neither the Phillies nor the Washington Nationals had scored a run Thursday afternoon when the bottom of the sixth inning came around.

The Nationals, with a pennant in their sites, had a runner on third with two outs and Bryce Harper at the plate. The Phillies, with a pennant far off in the distance, had Aaron Nola on the mound.

First base was open. Struggling Ryan Zimmerman waited behind Harper. But the message from Phillies manager Pete Mackanin to Nola, the 22-year-old right-hander: Go after the MVP.

“I want to give our pitchers credit to get good hitters out,” Mackanin said. “That, to me, is an indication that I have a lot of confidence in Nola to make good pitches.”

So Nola came with a sinker, and Harper ripped at it. The result, in that moment: a sharp grounder to second that killed any sort of rally in what became a 3-0 Phillies’ victory.

The result, from a wide angle: The Phillies may not have expectations this weekend or next month, or into September. But even if Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels aren’t walking through that door, there are reasons for Phillies fans to harbor a commodity usually in short supply in this town: optimism.

“When you dismantle a good team, a great team like they had, when you do that, your scouting system is pretty good in doing their job,” Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. “Then you’re going to come up with everybody else’s best talent that they drafted ahead of you.”

The Phillies’ talent isn’t Halladay and Lee and Hamels and the rest of the guys that led the Phillies to the World Series title in 2008 and then another pennant in 2009. No, this is a full-on overhaul — from the top down.

General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is now the first base coach of the Boston Red Sox. Longtime franchise soothsayer Pat Gillick, a Hall of Famer, is a consultant, and under Gillick’s advice, the Phillies hired Andy MacPhail — late of the Twins, Cubs and Orioles — to oversee the entire operation. MacPhail brought aboard his former underling in Baltimore, former Angels assistant Matt Klentak, to be the general manager. And they went all-in on pursuing pitching.

“Our baseball ops group spent most of the available resources on trying to address the starting pitching,” MacPhail said Thursday. “That was the first leg. … We felt that was the foundation.”

Perhaps sooner than expected, the Phillies are seeing bits of that foundation. In a three-game sweep of the Nationals in Washington, Philadelphia’s starters — Vincent Velasquez, Jeremy Hellickson and Nola — tossed 20 innings, allowed nine hits, three runs, seven walks and struck out 19 batters. Again, the narrow view is that the Phillies have tossed aside an 0-4 start to impressively claw their way to 12-10. The wide view: Think about these guys in a few years.

“Velazquez is what? Twenty-three?” catcher Cameron Rupp said. “Nola’s 23?” Actually, he’s 22, but whatever. Right-hander Jerad Eickhoff is 25. And in the minors, right-hander Jake Thompson, 22, and right-hander Mark Appel, 24 — at the very least — await.

“That just kind of shows you where we are with our pitching,” Rupp said. “Having those guys, that shows a lot of promise.”

Which puts the Phillies, at least as April draws to a close, in a bit of a different spot from the other actively retrenching National League teams — Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Colorado. The Braves, for instance, look horrendous, and now, some of their offseason haul of prospects is being questioned.

But the Phillies have Nola, a first-round pick from 2014 who got half a season’s indoctrination last year before beginning this season in the rotation. Nola may not possess the classic pitcher’s frame; he is listed at 6-foot-2, but somehow seems slight. Thursday, he used his trademark pitch — a 77 mph curveball — to lock up the Nationals, allowing two singles over seven shutout innings in which he needed only 77 pitches.

A factor in Nola’s performance: The fact that the Phillies promoted him for 13 starts last summer.

“It definitely helps now,” Nola said. “I’ve been on this mound before against this team, pitched against this team several times already. And then just kind of being in the atmospheres and knowing what I’m capable of, what I can do out there, definitely helped me.”

But headed into the offseason, the Phillies didn’t have a critical mass of starters. So in December, they traded would-be closer Ken Giles to Houston for a package that included starting prospects Velasquez and Appel, a former top overall pick in the draft.

“I saw a big opportunity here with the Phillies,” Velasquez said. “I wanted to be in the starting rotation, and I thought I would be, but then hopefully helping them out with their whole process and what their intentions were, with the prospects.”

Yet the Phillies’ prospects have changed, slightly, for 2016. Even though veteran starter Charlie Morton was lost, likely for the season, to a torn hamstring, Velasquez (1.78 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 33 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings), Nola (3.55 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 37 strikeouts in 33 innings) and Eickoff (1.15 WHIP, 28 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings) provide hope, along with veteran Hellickson, as some sort of a backbone for years to come.

“A lot of guys write us off, saying we don’t want to win,” Rupp said. “That’s not true. We come out here, we have fun. We’ve won close games. … We’re surprising a lot of people already. We’re going to continue to do it.”

If they do, it won’t be because Ryan Howard suddenly becomes an MVP again, or because Jimmy Rollins magically appears at shortstop and Chase Utley at second base.

“If our pitching continues to do what they’re doing, we’re going to be in plenty of games,” Mackanin said. “That’s why we’re here, why we’re doing as well as we’re doing.”

And why, in a key spot with the best player on the planet at the plate, it’s not crazy to pitch to him. The result just might show you don’t have to check back in two or three years to see whether the Phillies have some talent.

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