Zack Wheeler watched the Phillies throw away a game Friday night and then look flat Saturday night. They entered Sunday on a four-game losing streak and had dropped two-games below .500.
“Honestly, it popped into my head after the loss that we have to get back on the right track and it kind of comes down to me,” Wheeler said after carrying the Phillies to a 6-2 win Sunday over Boston.
Wheeler was excellent as he pitched into the eighth inning and allowed just one run on three hits and struck out 12. The Phillies flew to Miami with confidence ahead of a crucial four-game series vs. the pesky Marlins. It’s going to be a challenging week, but it would be even tougher had Wheeler not pushed the Phils on Sunday.
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Bryce Harper says his timing is off at the plate
Jean Segura clapped his hands Saturday night and shouted toward the dugout as he approached first base. He had walked with one out in the ninth inning to put runners on first and second for Bryce Harper with the Phillies down by two runs.
Two innings earlier, Harper struck out on three pitches as a rally fizzled. But this — as Segura clapped in his direction and the ballpark started to buzz — seemed like a chance at redemption.
Except Harper has not quite looked like himself lately. He saw four pitches, grounded into a forceout, and put the Phillies one out closer to an eventual loss.
A day later, he was out of the lineup. It was just a day off, Joe Girardi said. But it felt like an ideal chance to reset Harper, who went 0-for-5 on Saturday and has just two hits in his last 25 at-bats, with 13 strikeouts. For Harper, it’s been a rough month.
“Just being selective at the plate. I’m missing a lot of pitches over the plate right now that I shouldn’t be missing,” Harper said before Saturday’s game. “That’s been kind of a grind to figure out why and what’s going on. But I’m just trying to take it every day and keep doing what I’m doing.”
Harper has made contact this month on just 67.8% of the pitches he has swung at in the strike zone. It is the lowest zone-contact percentage in the majors in May and 15.5% less than Harper’s career average.
Harper is still swinging this month at pitches in the strike zone at the same rate he has his whole career. But like he said, he’s missing them.
In Saturday’s seventh inning, the Red Sox attacked Harper with the bases loaded by throwing him three straight fastballs. Darwinzon Hernandez didn’t get fancy, and just pumped his fastball through the center of the strike zone. Harper took one, fouled another straight back, and watched a third fastball for strike three. It was another at-bat in which Harper’s timing felt off.
“I feel like that’s what it’s been,” Harper said. “I think I’m walking up to the plate every day confident in what I’m going to do. I got two hits that first night against Miami and was feeling good but haven’t hit anything since. I feel like there’s times where I’m out in front and there’s times when I’m out in front fouling pitches straight back and wondering to myself why the heck did I miss that pitch or how the heck did I miss that pitch.
“I think that’s just baseball at times, but I need to figure it out because I’m tired of seeing it from myself. Just try to work on it as best as I can and try to get better.”
Harper has dealt this month with a nagging back injury, a sore wrist, and a sore shoulder. He ended April by being hit in the face with a 97-mph fastball. He’s been nicked up, yet plays nearly every day. But Harper is not blaming the injuries for his slump.
“I feel good,” Harper said. “I think I have good days and bad days. I’m getting to where I need to be, health-wise. My back feels good. My wrist feels good. Shoulder is getting better by the day. There’s some pitches where I feel it, and there are some pitches where I won’t.”
Pitchers are attacking Harper this month with more fastballs, as he’s seen them on 50% of his pitches, a 5% increase from the season’s first month. The average velocity of those fastballs, 94.9 mph, is the hardest any batter has faced in May. He’s hitting just .214 this month on fastballs after hitting .326 last month against heaters.
Opponents also are not shying away this season from throwing in the strike zone. Harper has seen 41.5% of his pitches this season inside the strike zone, his highest rate since 2017.
Pitchers have not been afraid this season to test Harper, recognizing that his timing is not quite there. His contact rate (65.6%) is a career low, but Harper’s average exit velocity (91.4 mph) is on par with the way he hit the last four seasons.
There are clear indications that Harper will be dangerous again once he finds his timing, as he’s still hitting the ball hard. He’s just not making regular contact. And until he does, pitchers will keep testing him like they did Saturday night.
“It’s every hitter, right? It’s a battle every pitch to be on time and when you’re on time, you make better decisions,” hitting coach Joe Dillon said. “You make better decisions, you make more contact. With him, contact is king because when he makes contact, he hits the ball as hard as anyone in the game.
“It’s just hitters go through streaks. They go through good streaks, bad streaks, and everywhere in between. That’s a product of the season. With him, he’s just been a little bit late recently and playing catch-up and missing pitches that he normally hits. But that’s baseball. He’ll get back on track.”
Spencer Howard said his velocity dip Saturday night was a result of his running hard to first base on a ground out in the second inning. Scott Lauber talked Sunday morning to pitching coach Caleb Cotham about how the Phillies are trying to help Howard maintain his velocity as a starting pitcher.
Harper was out of the lineup Sunday, but he talked before Saturday’s game about how he feels it is the duty of a superstar athlete to play through pain. Vanessa Bryant said last week that Kobe felt responsible to the fans to play every night. Harper agrees.
Wheeler spun another gem for the Phils on Sunday, and Lauber has all the details from a 6-2 win over the Red Sox.
Tonight: Zach Eflin faces lefty Trevor Rogers in series opener in Miami, 6:40 p.m.
Tomorrow: Vince Velasquez starts vs. righty Sandy Alcantara, 6:40 p.m.
Wednesday: Aaron Nola pitches against the Marlins, 6:40 p.m.
Thursday: Howard starts the series finale, 12:10 p.m.
Friday: The Phillies are off.
Stat of the day
Odúbel Herrera went 3-for-4 on Sunday to improve his batting average to .284 and his OPS to .785. Herrera started the season with just 2 hits in 25 at-bats as he struggled in facing major-league pitching for the first time since his arrest in May 2019 on domestic violence charges. Herrera has since hit .368 (21-for-57) and has reached base in 12 straight games. In those 12 games, Herrera’s OPS is 1.065.
The Phillies were desperate for production from center field when they promoted Herrera. It seems like he might be their answer.
“I’m thrilled, really,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Friday about Herrera’s seizing the center-field job. “I’m happy for us, happy for him. He’s got to keep doing it by all means, but he’s hit well, he’s brought his average way up, and he’s played solidly in center field.”
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @matt_breen.
Question: Should the Phillies regret losing Cole Irvin and Nick Pivetta? — Greg G. via email
Answer: Thanks, Greg. Pivetta and Irvin have identical ERAs (3.59) this season through their first nine starts. Pivetta is having success with Boston, while Irvin is doing it with Oakland. Both have obviously pitched better this season than Matt Moore and Chase Anderson, but it’s impossible to know if they would have had that success in Philadelphia.
Pivetta said this weekend that he benefited from a change of scenery. He said he didn’t feel comfortable at the end of his time with the Phillies. Now he does. Perhaps Irvin feels the same. Also, it’s not even Memorial Day. Let’s see how their seasons play out.