After so many bungled leads and late-inning meltdowns, there was one word for how the Phillies felt about the breathtaking ending to Sunday night’s game in Atlanta.


You could see it in catcher Andrew Knapp’s reaction. Knapp lunged into the baseline to snag shortstop Didi Gregorius’ relay from the outfield, tagged Dansby Swanson, held the ball aloft, and awaited home-plate umpire Roberto Ortiz’s call. Then he let out a victory scream.

“Everything happened so fast and we really needed this win and it was such a great play that my emotions got the best of me a little bit,” Knapp said. “It was a big team win. It’s one of these wins that, you look at the end of the season and you go, ‘Man, that really turned our season around.‘ ”

Maybe, but only if the Phillies can get on a roll in their remaining 36 games over the next 34 days. It begins tonight in Washington.

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Phillies reliever Heath Hembree, acquired last Friday night from the Boston Red Sox, has excelled throughout his career in stranding inherited baserunners.
Winslow Townson / AP
Phillies reliever Heath Hembree, acquired last Friday night from the Boston Red Sox, has excelled throughout his career in stranding inherited baserunners.

Enter Strandman: How Heath Hembree can help Phillies

For half of his decade-long run as New York Yankees manager, Joe Girardi had the considerable luxury of closing out games with Mariano Rivera, who entered from the bullpen to strains of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

As Phillies manager, Girardi can now call on the “Strandman.”

Nobody will confuse Heath Hembree with Rivera. In eight major-league seasons, Hembree has compiled a 3.57 ERA and averaged 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings mostly as a middle reliever for the Boston Red Sox. At times, he has been good. Rivera, of course, was great.

But it seems Hembree is at his best when he comes into a game with runners on base. Last season, he inherited 24 runners and allowed five to score. Two seasons ago, he stranded 28 of 41, including 19 in a row at one point. In 2016, he stranded 19 of 26.

In his Phillies debut Sunday night, 48 hours after being acquired from the Red Sox, Hembree inherited a two-on, one-out jam from starter Zach Eflin. True to form, he struck out Johan Camargo, got Ender Inciarte to ground out, and safeguarded a 5-3 lead.

“I don’t think anything really changes about my approach,” Hembree said of his proficiency at cleaning up other pitchers’ messes. “My mentality is just attack hitters. I kind of just stick to that. Coming into that situation [Sunday night], I felt comfortable because I’ve been in it so many times with the Red Sox. It felt very similar and nothing foreign to me.”

The Phillies made a win-now move to get Hembree and closer Brandon Workman from Boston. The price was steep. In addition to giving up underachieving pitcher Nick Pivetta, they dealt Connor Seabold, a promising right-hander in the farm system.

But that’s what happens when a team that expects to make the playoffs in a 60-game season has a 7.65 bullpen ERA. In particular, the first reliever brought into most games has struggled, giving up 34 runs in 20 1/3 innings entering Sunday night.

Hembree figures to be able to help in that area. Girardi, known for his deployment of relievers, is familiar with Hembree from so many Yankees-Red Sox games and has seen him put out a few fires.

“We’ve seen him quite a bit in Boston. You know what you’re getting,” Knapp said. “You’re getting a really good fastball and some good command, too, with the slider. My first impression was great.”

The rundown

What’s wrong with Hector Neris? He’s not fooling anyone with his splitter, as Matt Breen writes, and it seems he has lost his hold on the Phillies’ closer job.

The Hall of Fame announced Monday night that two committees that were scheduled to meet this winter won’t convene until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, which means Dick Allen’s wait to be elected to Cooperstown will drag on even longer.

Twenty-two years ago, a star catcher who was acquired in a trade signed a record-breaking contract extension before his age-30 season. I asked the general manager who signed Mike Piazza if the Phillies can apply any lessons from that deal to a potential extension with J.T. Realmuto.

Important dates

Tonight: Jake Arrieta starts series opener in Washington, 6:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: Aaron Nola vs. Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin, 6:05 p.m.

Thursday: Spencer Howard vs. Max Scherzer in series finale, 6:37 p.m.

Friday: Phillies return home to face Atlanta Braves, 7:05 p.m.

Right-hander Zack Wheeler leads all Phillies starting pitchers with an average fastball velocity of 96.7 mph this season.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Right-hander Zack Wheeler leads all Phillies starting pitchers with an average fastball velocity of 96.7 mph this season.

Stat of the day

Of all the reasons to be impressed with Zack Wheeler thus far this season — the 3-0 record, the 2.76 ERA, the 20-to-6 strikeouts-to-walks ratio — this is the most eye-popping: an average fastball velocity of 96.7 mph.

Wheeler has the sixth-fastest heater among all starters who have thrown at least 100 pitches this season, according to Statcast, trailing only the Mets’ Jacob deGrom (98.5), the White Sox’s Dylan Cease (97.5), the Reds’ Luis Castillo (97.4), the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow (97.1), and the Padres’ Dinelson Limet (97.1).

But Wheeler also throws the fastest fastball of any Phillies starter who made more than one start in a season since Statcast began recording velocities in 2008. Here are the yearly Phillies leaders:

2019: Nick Pivetta (94.1)

2018: Pivetta (94.7)

2017: Pivetta (94.4)

2016: Vince Velasquez (94.4)

2015: Phillippe Aumont (93.1)

2014: A.J. Burnett (92.2)

2013: Ethan Martin (93.6)

2012: B.J. Rosenberg (96.8 in one start); Cole Hamels (91.0)

2011: Roy Halladay (91.8)

2010: Halladay (92.6)

2009: Antonio Bastardo (92.2)

2008: Hamels (90.4)

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Happy to see the Phillies picked up a few relievers last week. Is that going to be it for them before the trade deadline? — Howard F., via email

Answer: Hey, Howard. Thanks for the note. I asked general manager Matt Klentak that question, more or less, after the trade with the Red Sox last Friday night. The Phillies are nudged up against the $208 million competitive-balance tax threshold, so I wondered if they lack the flexibility to make another deal.

Here was his answer, edited slightly for length and clarity:

“I don’t think the CBT is going to be the impediment. To me, this was our most pressing need, in the bullpen, and we added three guys in one day 10 days out. This could be it, but I’m not going to guarantee that this is it because we’ll play it out and see what else is out there. If other needs present themselves and we have a way to address them, then I’m sure we’ll explore that. I think it’s setting up to be a unique deadline for COVID reasons, not just baseball reasons. We’ll just have to see how it plays out.”