They rolled into the All-Star break with a 5-2 road trip. Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr., the best player on the most talented team, got hurt. The second half reads like a triple-A schedule. All of this has sparked hope among the Phillies’ long-suffering faithful.
Faithful long-sufferers, don’t get those hopes up.
The Phillies exited the break Friday hosting the last-place Marlins for four games in three days ... but Matt Moore (5.40 ERA) and Vince Velasquez (5.35) start Games 1 and 3.
At least the bullpen’s rested.
The Phillies, 2021, are 44-44, but that is a miracle on par with any in the city’s history. This team plays play bad, dumb baseball. They hit a little, but they can’t catch. They can’t run the bases. They make outlandish decisions both on the field and off: They also remain far below the 85% vaccination threshold, which currently is costing them four players, or 15% of their roster. As one longtime scout and coach told me early last week, “This is stuff that does not get fixed during a season.”
These problems won’t improve with a five-win roadie. They won’t change despite an easy second-half schedule. Playing this brand of baseball renders postseason success impossible, and that remains true even if the Phillies trade for Cubs stars Craig Kimbrel, a closer, or Kris Bryant, an outfielder. This won’t change if they steal the National League East. It will just mean the ugliness will continue for an extra week.
Yes, their pre-break roll-up was their best seven-game excursion since 2014, but history tells us small sample sizes like that mean little. Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins still comprised the bulk of the offense and the payroll back in 2014, and that particular trip included two wins over the Cardinals, who won their division. This trip included two wins over the Red Sox, who lead their division.
That 2014 team won just 73 games and finished last in the NL East. Don’t expect much better from this edition. They finished the first half in second place, 3½ games behind the Mets, but they were also 2½ games out of fourth place, where the Nationals now reside. The Phillies are 4-4 against the Nationals, including the worst loss of the season, when they blew three leads in just nine innings. The sting from that defeat lingered until last Sunday, when the Phillies recorded their best win of the season -- somehow.
They needed a three-run homer from Ronald Torreyes, which was just his seventh homer in seven seasons. They needed a seven-out save from Ranger Suarez, which was just Suarez’s second save in his four seasons. They stole the game more than they won it, especially considering the circumstances; it was sabotaged by COVID-19 protocols and their own vaccine-averse clubhouse. Winning at Boston without No. 1 starter Aaron Nola, starting third baseman Alec Bohm, and Connor Brogdon, the Phillies reliever with the second-most appearances, provided a mirage of competence for the most gullible.
Don’t fall for it
The Phillies, top-to-bottom, inside-and-out, are not just worse than the Mets, Braves, and Nationals; they play incompetent baseball far below their talent level. They are often mystifying, thanks to manager Joe Girardi; too often inept, thanks to poor discipline and fundamentals; and, regularly, utterly unwatchable. Occasionally they overcome these flaws, but that does not make the flaws any less fatal.
Consider this random baserunning misplay from last Friday’s loss in Boston: Travis Jankowski was on second base when J.T. Realmuto hit a ball up the middle, to the left of Jankowski and the shortstop. The shortstop dived to his left. Jankowski retreated to second base. Now, anyone who played past T-ball knows that the baserunner must take third base on that play. It is elementary, yet the Phillies failed this simple test. As they so often do.
That play crystallizes what this club is. It declines to take bases given to it, then takes foolish chances and runs into outs. It gives away outs on defense with incorrect throws, sometimes failing to make the simplest of plays, one of which produced a dugout blowup.
On May 16, second baseman Jean Segura tried to manipulate a soft line drive into a double play. He failed. It resulted in no outs. Shortly thereafter, it resulted in Segura and Girardi screaming at each other in the dugout.
And that wasn’t close to being the dumbest thing the Phillies have done.
Several players, and possibly support staff, refuse to get the safe, effective COVID-19 vaccination. This obstinance meant that Bohm, who tested positive, and unvaccinated teammates Nola, Brogdon, and rookie reliever Bailey Falter were placed in the COVID protocol. This will bench Bohm until at least Wednesday, which means he will miss six games.
Falter returned, but Nola and Brogdon did not. This set off alarm bells.
They were false alarms. Nola was not scheduled to pitch in this weekend’s four games, but is scheduled to start at the Yankees on Tuesday. This means Nola will miss at least two scheduled starts. The Phillies were hopeful that Brogdon would be cleared Saturday, which means he likely will have missed at least two appearances. Sigh.
Between the baserunning, the defense, and the bewildering anti-vaxxers, this team is, simply, too witless to win.
Also, key players are underperforming.
If 2021 is the Year of the Pitcher, nobody told Nola. The purported ace carries a 4.53 ERA, which ranks 55th among the 64 starters who currently qualify for the ERA title, according to baseball-reference.com. That’s 1.20 earned runs worse than Nola’s previous four-year average of 3.23, an ERA that justified his $11 million salary this season, part of a four-year $45 million contract that runs through next season.
Streaky slugger Rhys Hoskins last month broke out of a 2-for-40 slump -- for three games. He’s hitting .210 in his last 16 games. Andrew McCutchen was worse: He flirted with the Mendoza line the first two months of the season, hitting .201. He then got hot for most of June but has hit .186 in his last 12 games. McCutchen is 34. He’s making $20 million.
It’s not all bad news. All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto and his .808 OPS justify his new five-year, $115.5 million contract; $330 million linchpin Bryce Harper is producing nicely; and Segura, 31, is having perhaps his best season at the plate. However, each has missed significant time with injuries, and Harper’s chronic back problem ticks like a time bomb day-to-day.
Hector Neris isn’t a closer, particularly not on a contender, but that’s where the Phillies put him for the first 2½ months. Jose Alvarado failed in the role, which now has fallen to Suarez.
Neris has been a major part of a bullpen that, as a whole, hasn’t been out of the bottom half of baseball in four years, was one of the worst in baseball history in 2020, and remains horrid, ranked 23rd 88 games into its season. Like the bullpen, the defense performs worse than its numbers indicate.
The Phillies rank 16th with a .984 fielding percentage. That’s a laughably generous statistic, partly because many of the defensive miscues involve plays that cannot be scored as errors, and partly because many plays that should have been ruled errors have not been.
Well, 12 of their 14 games coming out of the break are against division rivals. All will be in Philadelphia, where the Phillies have played .600 ball. But even if the Phillies win seven or eight of those 12 NL East games, any belief that this bullpen, this defense, and this lineup will hold up in October is, simply, delusional.