Eight days ago, the Phillies woke up in New York having dropped three games in a row. They were called out by teammate Jake Arrieta for appearing “flat” in a loss to the Mets. They were angry that Rhys Hoskins had to duck out of the way of two high-and-tight pitches in the ninth inning of a blowout loss. They were having a lousy week.
But they were also one victory and a soft stretch of schedule away from turning it around. Sure enough, they won the series finale against the Mets, returned home, and took three out of four games from the last-place Marlins. And when the offense finally erupted in a four-run seventh inning last night, they secured a split of a two-game series with the Tigers.
Now, as the Phillies get another breather today, they have won four of the last five games and have a two-game lead in the NL East. They are 17-13, on pace for 91 victories and one Bryce Harper hot streak away from everything being peachy.
Welcome to the ebbs and flows of a six-month baseball season.
It can drive you crazy, can’t it?
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Aaron Nola has made 40 starts for Gabe Kapler over the last two seasons. That’s enough for the Phillies manager to recognize the biggest bellwether of his ace’s performance.
“If his curveball is on,” Kapler said yesterday, “it doesn’t matter who the opposition is. It really doesn’t. He goes through the best lineups in baseball when his curveball is right.”
Last night, Nola’s curveball was as right as it has been so far this season. He threw it 37 times and got 12 called strikes. The Tigers put the breaking pitch in play seven times, only three for hits. Five of Nola’s six strikeouts came on curveballs. And he gave up only one run in 5 2/3 innings of an eventual 7-3 Phillies victory.
It was the latest encouraging outing in a three-start stretch in which Nola has allowed five runs in 18 innings for a 2.50 ERA. He’s still allowing more hits than usual (23) and not pitching as deep into games as he’s accustomed to. But it’s all much more Nola-esque than his first four starts, in which he posted a 7.45 ERA and had Kapler delving into possible reasons for the downturn.
“I knew in the bullpen my curveball was good today and my change-up was pretty good,” Nola said. “I just felt on line with everything.”
Theories abound as to why the season’s first few weeks were such a struggle for Nola. He’s worked in mostly rotten weather, sub-optimal conditions for any pitcher but particularly one who relies more on feel and command than power and velocity. There has been talk that he’s had difficulty gripping the ball, particularly on his offspeed pitches.
Nola hasn’t used the early-season chill as an excuse, but he also doesn’t deny it as a possible explanation.
“April is gone,” he said, “so that’s nice for me.”
Regardless, based on the break of Nola’s curveball against the Tigers, Kapler senses that the right-hander is “this close to having one of his vintage games."
“Obviously I started off slow, really slow, and definitely not the way I wanted to start,” Nola said. “I feel like these last couple of outings I’ve kind of gotten it back together and back to kind of feeling myself again. I feel like the experience helps, going through ups and downs and learning how to deal with those kinds of things.”
Nola has turned a corner, and the Phillies fully expect that Bryce Harper will do the same, writes Bob Brookover.
Speaking of Harper, not only does Kapler not see the sense in giving the slumping superstar a night off, but he said there’s “a very real chance that Bryce will play 162 games."
Maikel Franco delivered the big hit, a three-run double to center field, and as Matt Breen details here, it was further evidence of his dramatic evolution into a more complete hitter.
If he didn’t already know it, Chase Utley was reminded yesterday that he still stirs some, um, strong feelings among Mets fans.
Average attendance at Citizens Bank Park in March/April was up 43.2 percent compared to the same point last year, as Katie McInerney writes.
Today: The Phillies are off.
Tomorrow: Phillies vs. Nationals, Jerad Eickhoff vs. Jeremy Hellickson, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Jimmy Rollins’ retirement ceremony before 7:05 p.m. game vs. Nats.
Sunday: Zach Eflin starts series finale vs. Nationals, 2:05 p.m.
Monday: Phillies open a three-game series in St. Louis, 8:05 p.m.
Rhys Hoskins recently made his 1,000th career plate appearance, an appropriate mile post to take stock of what he has accomplished thus far in his major-league career.
Spoiler alert: It’s been impressive.
Hoskins had a .903 on-base plus slugging percentage through 1,000 plate appearances. He’s only the fifth player in Phillies history to reach that point with an OPS of at least .900, joining Chuck Klein (1.043), Ryan Howard (1.025), Dick Allen (.949) and Lefty O’Doul (.934). He’s also the first player in team history with at least 60 home runs and 145 walks through 1,000 plate appearances.
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Question: With Sean Rodriguez getting the start in left [field] tonight is it fair to say that Aaron Altherr’s days as a Phillie are numbered? Look forward to Extra Innings each morning.
--JM, via email