A season ago, the Phillies’ first visit to Nationals Park could not have been more anticipated. Bryce Harper was returning to his former home, and Washington Nationals fans were eager to greet him. A large contingent of Phillies fans also made the trip down I-95, and when Harper homered in the first game between the teams, they started chanting, “We got Bryce. We got Bryce.”
The Nationals, of course, got the last laugh by overcoming a horrendous start and winning the first World Series in franchise history as well as the first World Series by a team from Washington since 1924.
There were no fans for either team at the ballpark Tuesday night, but Harper and the Phillies registered an 8-3 win in the first meeting of 2020 between the teams, thanks to a three-run homer by J.T. Realmuto and some solid pitching from Jake Arrieta and the bullpen.
Yes, the bullpen.
The Phillies have won two in a row after a five-game losing streak and will go for three in a row with Aaron Nola on the mound Wednesday night.
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Chants imploring the Phillies to sign Andrew Knapp to a long-term deal are not coming any time soon, but at least the complaints about the backup catcher’s performance have been muted this season. Knapp, of course, was the hero Sunday night after he made a sensational tag at home plate on Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson to preserve the Phillies’ desperately needed 5-4 win over the Braves.
The catcher’s contributions, however, have gone well beyond that play. Knapp, who entered this season with a career .223 batting average, has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises at the plate and not just behind it. He is hitting .450 (9-for-20) with three doubles, five RBIs and a 1.100 OPS. A year ago, Knapp did not get his ninth hit of the season until the Phillies’ 62nd game on June 5. He did not pick up his fifth RBI until Aug. 31, the Phillies’ 134th game of the season.
Being a productive hitter as a backup catcher is a difficult task, and that’s especially true when you are a backup to J.T. Realmuto, who caught more games than anybody else in baseball last season.
“He has played great,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said before Tuesday’s game. “I have reminded him of that a number of times, and it’s not an easy role. But I think we’ve been able to get him somewhat consistent at-bats, where he’s not going a real long time without playing, and I think that’s important for a backup catcher.”
Thanks to a steady diet of doubleheaders and the introduction of the designated hitter to the National League, Girardi has been able to start Knapp six times while also keeping Realmuto’s bat in the lineup. Knapp did not make his sixth start last year until the Phillies were 38 games into their season.
“I think Andrew has played as good as he can play and I’ve been so happy with what he’s done,” Girardi said. “He’s going to catch some more in this long stretch, too, because I can DH J.T. and I think it helps J.T. I think it helps everybody out, and [Knapp’s] being productive at bat is just a plus.”
The Phillies started a stretch Tuesday during which they’ll play 33 games in 27 days with only one day off until Sept. 23, so there will indeed be plenty of opportunity for Knapp to play.
It should not be forgotten that Knapp was once considered among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects, checking in at No. 96 before the 2016 season when he hit .266 with 24 doubles and eight home runs at triple-A Lehigh Valley.
As for signing A.K., the Phillies do not have to worry about that right now, although he will be eligible for salary arbitration for the first time in his career after this season.
Realmuto’s homer gave the Phillies a 4-1 lead, and they just kept tacking on runs in their win over the Nationals.
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak addressed his team’s bullpen problems by adding Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree from Boston and David Hale from the New York Yankees. In my most recent column, I wonder if he was too late to save this season.
With three doubleheaders left on the schedule, Vince Velasquez will likely make some more starts this season, but right now he is a member of the Phillies bullpen. That means rookie Spencer Howard will remain in the rotation.
Girardi caught and managed some of the greatest bullpens in history during his time with the Yankees, which makes you wonder how he has remained sane through the first month of the Phillies season as the bullpen has endured a monumental struggle.
Tonight: Aaron Nola tries to rebound from loss to Atlanta vs. Nats, 6:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Spencer Howard starts series finale against Max Scherzer, 6:37 p.m.
Friday: Zack Wheeler pitches series opener vs. Atlanta, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Zach Eflin in matinee vs. Braves, 1:15 p.m.
Sunday: Braves-Phillies rematch on Sunday Night Baseball, 7:08 p.m.
The Phillies, with an 11-14 record, certainly have their share of issues, but scoring runs is not one of them. They are averaging 5.4 runs, good enough to rank second in baseball behind the Los Angeles Dodgers. The five teams directly behind them are among the top 11 in baseball and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today. The Phillies would not.
The Phillies are also consistently scoring runs. They have scored five or more 15 times in 25 games, a 60% rate that is tied for fifth in baseball and is the best in the National League East. The Phillies are 11-4 in those games, but they are 0-10 when they do not score at least five runs. Only two other teams, Pittsburgh (0-11) and Baltimore (0-10), are winless when scoring fewer than five runs.
Send questions by email or on Twitter @brookob.
Question: Love reading Extra Innings. Do you think we will ever see robo umpires calling balls and strikes in big-league games? — Marty H., via email
Answer: Thanks for reading, Marty, and for the great question. I interviewed several people on the subject last year, and the idea did not get a lot of support. Predictably, longtime umpire Joe West was against it, but less predictable was the opposition from Phillies players, including Rhys Hoskins and Adam Morgan.
Still, it is difficult to watch botched calls influence at-bats and games. In the bottom of the third inning Sunday, Atlanta’s Ender Inciarte drew a leadoff walk against Zach Eflin even though three of the called balls were strikes according to the box on the screen. It was so bad that play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian actually announced that Inciarte had struck out looking.
A half-inning later, Bryce Harper took a first-pitch curveball from Touki Toussaint that was called a strike. It was clearly not a strike, and ESPN analyst Alex Rodriguez pointed out how the blown call changed the entire at-bat.