Let’s talk about all the hand-wringing over the lack of production from the Phillies offense.
It’s gone. Goodbye. See you later. Just like the 6½ football field’s worth of home runs that were hit to build a two-touchdown lead through eight innings Monday night at Citizens Bank Park.
But the concern about the Phillies’ bullpen? That’s real. Very real.
In their first instance of playing on a third consecutive day since July 26 — free from rainouts and potential exposure to an opponent’s COVID-19 outbreak — the Phillies unloaded for 10 runs in the first two innings and five home runs. Yet somehow they had to hold on for a 13-8 victory over the Atlanta Braves after relievers Nick Pivetta and Trevor Kelley combined to give up seven runs in the ninth inning.
If experience tells manager Joe Girardi that the Phillies’ hitters will break out if only they can ever get into the everyday rhythm of the sport, then surely he also knows that he can’t win with a group of relievers that has a combined 9.87 ERA.
“I’m frustrated for the guys that gave up the runs because we want them to contribute and we want them to get going,” Girardi said. “It does not dampen that we won the game, that Aaron [Nola] pitched great, and we swung the bats extremely well.”
It does, though. At least somewhat. Because rather than Bryce Harper’s three-run moonshot into the visiting bullpen in the first inning, or Didi Gregorius’ grand slam in the second, or two more hits by Phil Gosselin, or even salvaging a split in the four-game series with the Braves, the most talked-about image from the game was Girardi calling down to the bullpen to speak with Pivetta (usually the bullpen coach relays a manager’s message to pitchers) in the eighth inning before he warmed up to come into a 13-1 game.
By then, although Nola’s pitch count would wind up at only 89, Girardi decided to trust the bullpen with a 12-run lead. Specifically, he wanted to put it in Pivetta’s hands, even though the converted starter is usually a multi-inning reliever who doesn’t often appear in mop-up situations.
“It was nothing really enlightening, but I just wanted to explain to him why I was bringing him in this game,” Girardi said. “Because he hasn’t pitched for five days and I thought he needed to pitch.”
Pivetta faced seven batters, gave up six runs on six hits, and recorded one out. Kelley faced three batters, gave up one hit and one run, and got the final two outs. But not before closer Hector Neris had to warm up, marking the second time in six days that he had to get loose in the ninth inning despite the Phillies holding a sizable lead.
Surely the Phillies can’t continue to overcome the bullpen, even if Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Gregorius keep hitting home runs and the starting pitching remains solid.
“That’s a tough question,” Harper said. “I think as a team we have to be able to rely on our guys. We’re at the big-league level for a reason. We have to be able to rely on the guys that are coming out of the bullpen and trust in those guys and give them the opportunity to do well.”
Nola was as efficient as he was effective. He struck out 10 batters, his 14th career double-digit strikeout game, the most ever by a Phillies pitcher through 130 appearances. He got his first win since Aug. 20, a span of nine starts and 356 days in which 13 Phillies pitchers — and 361 pitchers overall — won at least once
Before the game, Girardi addressed concerns about an offense that produced only 42 runs through 10 games. Rhys Hoskins entered the game slugging .241 with two extra-base hits and no home runs; Scott Kingery was 3-for-31 (.097); leadoff man Andrew McCutchen has a .206 on-base percentage.
“These are our guys,” Girardi said, “and they’ve got to get it going.”
McCutchen got a night off in the series finale against the Braves. Hoskins and Kingery went a combined 2-for-7. But the rest of the Phillies got it going, all right. Eight of the nine starters notched at least one hit. Roman Quinn had three, including a homer. Realmuto homered for the fifth time this season.
Gosselin singled on Sean Newcomb’s third pitch of the game. Hoskins singled on his seventh. Harper made it 3-0 on his 12th.
And the Phillies were just getting warmed up, sending 10 batters to the plate in a seven-run second inning.
Girardi said Nola wasn’t happy to come out of the game. But Nola insisted that he understood. It was, after all, only his third start of a shortened season after a three-week training camp and a recent seven-day layoff, and with pitching injuries on the rise throughout baseball, it’s better to be prudent.
“Obviously I wanted to [finish] the game,” Nola said. “I understand where they’re coming from, for sure. I feel it would be a different conversation if it was a close game. I could see myself going out [for the ninth inning] if it was a close game. Maybe there will be another chance for that.”