Never mind that the Phillies have played five days in a row only once all month. Somehow their best option to get out of a bases-loaded, two-out jam in the sixth inning Wednesday against the heart of the Nationals’ order was ... wait for it ... David Hale.
That’s what happens when the bullpen consists of two young starters (Spencer Howard and Bailey Falter) and a lefty who isn’t used to pitching on back-to-back days (Ranger Suárez). It doesn’t help either that the starters have averaged 4 1/3 innings in the last two turns through the rotation.
And this is what happens when you bring a mop-up man into a leverage situation: Trea Turner lines a two-run single, Juan Soto walks, Josh Bell hits a grand slam, and a four-run lead goes poof against Hale one inning after Vince Velasquez and Archie Bradley made a five-run lead vanish in a horrendous loss.
Next up: four games against the division-leading Mets in New York. It’s only June, but the Phillies’ season might hinge on nothing worse than a split.
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Phillies might be ready for a change at closer
When Héctor Neris blew saves in back-to-back games two weeks ago, Phillies manager Joe Girardi stood by the embattled closer.
How about now?
“I’ll take an off-day and think about it,” Girardi said Wednesday after Neris yielded a go-ahead two-run single to Starlin Castro in the Phillies’ brutal 13-12 loss to the Nationals. “I think that’s what you do. You’re always reevaluating. You take an off-day and look at it.”
And if, after sleeping on it, Girardi decides to appoint a new closer Friday when the Phillies open a four-game series in New York against the division-leading Mets, well, Neris won’t object.
“I’m behind the manager,” he said. “I want to support the team. If he thinks he has to move me right now, I’m going to keep working to help the team. It doesn’t matter what inning I’m pitching.”
OK, so it’s a done deal, right?
Not so fast. If it isn’t Neris in the ninth inning for the Phillies, who should it be?
Girardi installed Neris in the closer role on the eve of opening day because he had more experience than the other options, none of which has inspired much more confidence in the ensuing months. It’s part of the reason that Girardi has been so loyal to Neris.
José Alvarado is the most likely candidate to replace Neris, at least temporarily. He has allowed one earned run this month and two in his last 12 1/3 innings since May 22. Alvarado comes with a red flag, though. While he routinely cranks up his fastball to 100 mph, he has walked 23 batters and hit four in 26 2/3 innings. He can be an adventure in the seventh and eighth innings. In the ninth, there’s even less room for poor command.
But as a left-handed pitcher, Alvarado might represent a favorable matchup against the Mets’ lefty-leaning lineup of Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto, Dominic Smith, and possibly Brandon Nimmo if he’s ready to come back from the injured list. Alvarado already has a grudge with New York after getting suspended three games for initiating a dugouts-clearing dustup with Smith on April 30 at Citizens Bank Park.
When the Phillies signed Archie Bradley to a one-year, $6 million contract in January, it seemed he had closer potential after having filled that role in 2019 and part of last season for Arizona. But he missed a month with a strained muscle in his side and had difficulty sustaining his velocity early in the season and after his return.
Bradley has been better this month. He allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings before hanging a curveball to Kyle Schwarber for a three-run homer in the fifth inning Wednesday. His average velocity has ticked back up, too, from 92.1 mph on June 1 in Cincinnati to 94.2 in his last six appearances.
“It’s no secret some of my struggles and some of the things I’ve been working through, but I’ve done that before,” Bradley said recently. “I hate to call myself a veteran, but I am a veteran. I’ve done this. I’ve struggled, I’ve gotten better. And that’s what it’s about, man. It’s taking a deep breath, taking a step back. I’ve really been working hard to get my form back and get back to the guy that the Phillies need me to be.”
Whether or not Neris is the closer, the Phillies need him to pull it together, too.
Through 25 appearances, he had a 1.90 ERA and was 9-for-11 in save opportunities. When he allowed a game-tying homer to Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman in a blown save June 10, it marked the first run he had given up since May 8. But he coughed up another save June 12 against the Yankees. In his last five appearances, he has a 12.46 ERA and three blown saves in four chances.
“I know I have a responsibility to the team, especially in the inning I’m pitching in,” Neris said. “I just have to stay focused.”
Maybe a week or two out of the ninth inning could help. Girardi strayed from Neris as the closer last season after the Phillies acquired Brandon Workman in a trade with Boston. But Workman was a train wreck, and Girardi turned back to Neris down the stretch.
Neris, who is eligible for free agency after the season, is 82-for-106 in save opportunities in his career, a 77.4% success rate that ranks 23rd among 26 active relievers with at least 75 saves.
“Hec is hard on himself,” Bryce Harper said. “Hec’s not trying to go out there and blow games. He’s not trying to go out there and not throw strikes. Anybody who comes out of the bullpen, we have faith in them. That’s how we feel as of right now.”
But Girardi’s faith, at least, is as shaky as it has been all season.
Girardi’s bullpen usage came under scrutiny again Wednesday. He explained why he did what he did.
Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo blasted Girardi in a radio interview, calling him a “con artist” for asking that Max Scherzer be checked again for sticky substances Tuesday night. Dombrowski defended Girardi, as Matt Breen writes.
Today: The Phillies are off.
Tomorrow: Let’s play two! Aaron Nola, Matt Moore meet the Mets, 4:10 p.m.
Saturday: Phillies face ace-of-aces Jacob deGrom in New York, 4:10 p.m.
Sunday: Ex-Met Zack Wheeler faces his former team, 1:10 p.m.
Monday: Phillies travel to Cincinnati for a makeup game, 6:40 p.m.
Stat of the day
Harper continues to own Nationals right-hander Erick Fedde, his former teammate at Las Vegas High and for a few years with Washington. Including his opposite-field homer Wednesday, he is 6-for-15 (.400) with four homers and four walks against Fedde.
It marked Harper’s second homer in as many games and his 10th of the season. But all 10 homers have come with the bases empty. Dating to last season, Harper has hit 12 straight solo homers. Only 86 of his 221 plate appearances (38.9%) this season have come with a runner on base.
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Question: Am I wrong in believing Rhys [Hoskins] does not do well batting second? Any statistics on where he does best? — Betty Perry-Fingal (@PerryFingal) via Twitter
Answer: Thanks, Betty, for the question. Interestingly, Hoskins has been most productive in the No. 2 spot this season, with an .862 OPS and 12 homers. (Overall, he has a .783 OPS and 16 homers.)
But you’re not wrong in that, over his career, Hoskins has fared better as a cleanup hitter than batting second. Those are the two positions in the order he has occupied most often. Here’s the comparison:
No. 2: .225 average, .335 on-base, .476 slugging, 47 homers
No. 4: .256 average, .385 on-base, .530 slugging, 55 homers