So, how was your weekend, Joe Girardi?
“It stunk,” the Phillies manager said Sunday evening. “It stunk. It stunk. There’s no other way to describe it. It stunk.”
OK, well, there’s always next weekend.
But the Phillies can’t say that for much longer. After losing three out of four at home to the Rockies — a 21-51 team away from Colorado — they are, as ever, flirting with .500. They have been at that mark, or within one game in either direction, after 68 of 143 games. At 72-71, they embody mediocrity.
Amazingly, though, they are still kicking in the playoff race going into Monday, 4½ games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves and 2½ out of the second National League wild-card spot with 19 games remaining. Can MVP candidate Bryce Harper carry them to the postseason for the first time since 2011? Or will the drought reach a decade?
With the Chicago Cubs coming to town Tuesday night, Inquirer baseball writers Scott Lauber and Matt Breen are here to discuss the final three weeks of the season.
What’s the most impressive Harper stat as he continues his MVP push?
Scott Lauber: It’s difficult to get beyond 25 of his 32 home runs being solo shots, but this is about impressive Harper stats, not depressing Phillies ones. Let’s try this: Since June 5, when Harper returned from 10 days on the injured list stemming from getting smoked in the face by that fastball in St. Louis, he has a 1.098 on-base-plus-slugging, tops in the majors, and not far off his 1.109 mark from his 2015 MVP season.
Here, though, is something that isn’t getting talked about enough: Harper has started 53 consecutive games — and played all but seven innings — since July 17. For a guy with back problems, he sure has put the Phillies on his.
Matt Breen: Yes, much has been made of Harper’s solo homers this season and rightfully so. But how many chances has he had with runners in scoring position? Just 104 of his 518 plate appearances (20%) have come this season with runners in scoring position.
He has the same chances this season with runners in scoring position as former Phillie Maikel Franco, who hasn’t been in the majors since Aug. 22. Percentage-wise, the Baltimore Orioles, the owners of baseball’s worst record (46-97), did a better job this season getting runners on for Franco than the Phillies have done for Harper.
Harper is hitting .303 this season with runners in scoring position with an .898 OPS. But his 21 walks are the 22nd-most with runners in scoring position. So even when he does get a chance, he’s likely not getting a pitch to hit as opposing pitchers would rather face whoever is batting next.
Who is the most important Phillie not named Bryce Harper the rest of the way?
SL: The easiest answer is Aaron Nola. But with every two-strike hit in each lackluster start, Nola reminds me of Cole Hamels in 2009, a good pitcher in the midst of a down season. It happens. Let’s go, then, with catcher J.T. Realmuto. Before a three-hit game Sunday, he was 1-for-15, part of an 18-for-87, 30-strikeout rut that became more glaring once Rhys Hoskins was lost for the season. Realmuto hasn’t looked right, even though he claims his sore right shoulder is feeling better. But the Phillies need a Robin to Harper’s Batman. Realmuto is their best bet.
MB: In the final weeks of the season, it’s a nice feeling for a team to come to the ballpark knowing they’ll win that night. And the only pitcher who can deliver that feeling right now is Zack Wheeler. Harper can carry the lineup nearly every night, but Wheeler can carry the team every five days. He’ll make four more starts this season, all of which are must-wins given the Phillies cannot waste any of Wheeler’s nights. His first two starts this month have been excellent — not only did he drive the Phils to needed wins but he also allowed Girardi to rest the bullpen. That is even more significant given the Phillies are using a cast of relievers every fifth day instead of a fifth starter.
The Phillies will be in good shape if ...
SL: ... they hit. A lot.
Without Hoskins and Alec Bohm, who was sent back to the minors last month, and given Andrew McCutchen’s extreme splits, the Phillies are vulnerable against left-handed pitching. But they are scheduled to face three Cubs righties this week (Adrian Sampson, Alec Mills, and Kyle Hendricks) and at least two Mets righties over the weekend in New York.
Didi Gregorius will be important here. Let’s not sugarcoat it: He has been one of the worst everyday players in the majors, batting .219 with 11 homers, a .660 OPS, and 15 errors. But the lefty-hitting shortstop can redeem himself with a few big swings against those right-handed pitchers.
MB: Their bullpen can hold up. The Phillies are already asking a lot from their relievers by using “bullpen games” every fifth day, but they’ll also need to figure out the late innings on the nights a traditional starter hands them a lead. The Phillies were a strike away on Thursday from a win before Ian Kennedy blew the team’s 30th save of the season. It always stings to blow saves, but it’s almost inexcusable at this time of the season. Maybe the Phils don’t lose three of four to the Rockies if they start the series with a win. Remember nights like that if they fall short this month.
The Phillies will be in trouble if ...
SL: The Phillies are in trouble. Big trouble. Bad trouble. Fangraphs puts their odds of making the playoffs at 14.9%. Somehow it feels even slimmer.
Stop me if you’ve heard this, but the Phillies’ schedule is down-pillow soft. Their 10 remaining home games are against the Cubs (65-79), Orioles (46-97), and Pittsburgh Pirates (52-91). There’s no excuse to not win at least eight of them. But after getting swept last month in Arizona and tripping up against the Rockies, it’s clear that beating up on tomato cans isn’t the Phillies’ thing.
And going 8-2 at home would still mean having to go 6-3 on the road in New York, Atlanta, and Miami to equal the Braves’ 86-win pace. The math is getting bleak.
MB: Harper suddenly goes cold. Yes, those odds are slim but how narrower are they if Harper isn’t doing what he’s doing? He’s batting .316 this month with six homers in the first 11 games of September and is the only Phillies player other than Hoskins (who is out for the season) with an OPS better than .811 in the second half. Harper’s 1.211 second-half OPS is the third best in franchise history, trailing only Mike Schmidt in 1981 and Ryan Howard in 2006.
But Schmidt was joined in 1981 by two other hitters with a second-half OPS better than .858 and Howard had seven teammates with second-half OPS better than .866. The Phillies have provided Harper a second-half supporting cast of Tito, Marlon, Jackie, and Jermaine. And their playoff odds will be extinct if the front man suddenly can’t perform.