Admit it: You thought Bryce Harper was bonkers.
Eleven nights ago in Atlanta, after another blown ninth-inning lead in another crushing loss, Harper said all the Phillies needed to turn around the season was “to go on a streak and win nine out of 10.” Wishful thinking? For a team that hadn’t won as many as five in a row in two years, it was crazy talk.
But after Aaron Nola led Tuesday night’s 6-0 whitewashing of the Washington Nationals, the Phillies have won seven of eight. They have boosted their record above .500 for the first time this season and are tied for the sixth-best record in the National League.
“I don’t feel like we’re even hot,” left fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “I just feel like we’re doing the job. We’re doing what we need to do. We’re getting there. I’m feeling like this month for us is going to be a big month.”
Maybe Harper wasn’t so nutty after all.
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Phillies ’digging in’ on Spencer Howard’s velocity dip
Spencer Howard held the Nationals to two runs in five innings and picked up his first major-league victory in his fourth career start Monday night, bottom-line achievements that attracted most of the postgame attention.
But it didn’t escape manager Joe Girardi’s notice that the rookie right-hander’s fastball lost some zip throughout the game.
Howard came out blazing, his heater averaging 95.3 m.p.h. — and reaching a high of 96.5 — when he struck out the side in the first inning. But his average fastball velocity dipped to 94.6 m.p.h. in the second inning, 93.7 in the third, 92.2 in the fourth, and 91.9 in the fifth. He didn’t reach 95 m.p.h. with a fastball after the second inning.
“We’re kind of digging into that to find out because it’s not something that he’s experienced in the past,” Girardi said Tuesday. “We’re trying to figure it out.”
Howard sat comfortably in the mid-90s in the minor leagues and saw an uptick in his average fastball velocity from 93.5 m.p.h. in his major-league debut on Aug. 9 to 94.3 m.p.h. and 95.1 m.p.h. on Aug. 14 and Aug. 20, respectively.
It’s possible that Howard, like many pitchers, is still building arm strength after only a three-week training camp. It also seems likely that he was amped up to face the World Series champs. In fanning Trea Turner and Juan Soto to open the game, seven of his first 14 pitches registered at least 95 m.p.h.
Howard hasn’t complained of physical issues, according to Girardi, who said he isn’t concerned about being able to keep giving the ball to the 24-year-old every five days during a season-ending stretch in which the Phillies will play 29 games in 26 days.
Girardi even said he was encouraged to see Howard lean more on his change-up, slider and curveball than in previous starts. He used his fastball only 51.6% of the time against the Nationals compared to 73.1% on Aug. 20 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
But Girardi also doesn’t want to dismiss the velocity drop without questioning why it happened.
“We’re looking at everything — diet, conditioning, shorter spring training,” Girardi said. “I know his diet’s good because I know all of ours are good because all we eat are here [at the ballpark]. It can’t be that. But we’re trying to figure that out.
“I’d like to get to the bottom of it. I think we all would.”
Nola dazzled for eight innings, outdueling Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin for a second consecutive start. And when it was over, Corbin paid Nola the ultimate compliment.
Ranger Suarez had one symptom of COVID-19: dizziness. But after being diagnosed with the virus, the Phillies lefty spent a month in a Clearwater hotel room, as Matt Breen detailed in this story.
Big night for Alec Bohm, who homered and drove in two runs. In case you missed it Sunday, here’s the story of how the Phillies scouted the third baseman at Wichita State in 2017 and 2018.
Tonight: Zack Wheeler vs. Max Scherzer in another pitchers’ duel, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Phillies retire Dick Allen’s No. 15 before finale vs. Nationals, 4:05 p.m.
Friday: Phillies and Mets open a four-game series at Citi Field, 7:10 p.m.
Tuesday: One-day, two-game homestand with Red Sox-Phillies doubleheader, 4:05 p.m.
Stat of the day
Nola shut out the Nationals for eight innings Tuesday night. But if the sight of the ace right-hander walking off the mound at Citizens Bank Park after a dominant start felt familiar, it’s probably because few Phillies pitchers have ever been better at home.
In 70 career home starts, Nola is 33-17 with a 2.92 ERA and 524 strikeouts in 443 2/3 innings. Since earned runs became an official statistic in 1912, the only pitchers in franchise history with a better ERA in at least 400 innings at home were Grover Cleveland Alexander (2.04), Cliff Lee (2.84), Eppa Rixey (2.85), and Steve Carlton (2.89).
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Answer: Good question, Jeff. Thanks. I definitely did not see that coming. But it appears the Phillies’ willingness to designate Grullon for assignment — and risk losing him to a waiver claim from another club — has a lot to do with their confidence in 21-year-old catcher Rafael Marchan.
Marchan, who is at the satellite camp in Lehigh Valley, drew praise from Girardi in spring training for his defense, specifically his blocking. He went unclaimed in the Rule 5 draft last winter but will need to be added to the 40-man roster this offseason, if not sooner. Considering the roster is at full capacity now, the Phillies don’t believe they will have room to carry four catchers in the future.
Answer: Thanks, Cj. It’s certainly possible that the Phillies take a look at center field. I would point out, however, that the organization isn’t inclined to give up on Adam Haseley after selecting him with the eighth overall pick in the 2017 draft. Also, Girardi appears to be a big fan of Roman Quinn, believing that his speed and defense are game-changing skills.
Besides, the Phillies will have other, more pressing needs. In particular, they will have to find a way to re-sign (or, gulp, replace) J.T. Realmuto, decide about re-signing Didi Gregorius, and address the usual pitching needs that arise. Center field might not be high on their list of priorities.