The Phillies have been here before. This, in fact, is the third straight year they have arrived at September with a chance to end a playoff drought that has gone on for far too long in a market of Philadelphia’s size.
Two years ago, they were 10 games over .500, two games out of first place and three games back in the wild-card race heading into September.
Last year, they were four games over .500 and 3½ back in the wild-card race heading into the final month.
Phillies general manager Matt Klentak made a ton of low-cost acquisitions, including 18 that actually played for the team, in an effort to improve the club, but essentially he got what he paid for, which was a September collapse in consecutive years, leading to Gabe Kapler’s dismissal as manager.
Of the 18 players the GM acquired, only three of them were on the field for more wins than losses, and it’s difficult to get too excited about Fernando Salas’ 2-1 record or Aaron Loup’s 5-4 record during their low-leverage relief appearances.
The deadline-deals roll call also included Wilson Ramos, Asdrubal Cabrera, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison and a long list of others. Some of them performed well, none of them were difference makers.
Now, the Phillies have arrived at another September and this one is different in a lot of ways. Thanks to COVID-19, the final day of August was also the final day of the trade deadline. Thanks to COVID-19, the Phillies have five doubleheaders in September.
But also thanks to COVID-19, there are three more playoff spots available in each league and the Phillies head into September in one of those spots after evening their record at 15-15 following Monday night’s 8-6 win over the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. BaseballReference.com gave them a 49.2% chance of ending their playoff drought before Monday night’s game and they boosted those odds in the afternoon with one final trade before the deadline. This time they got a guy who could be a difference maker in the place where they needed to improve the most.
David Phelps, a 33-year-old right-hander acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers, was a terrific finishing touch to Klentak’s in-season bullpen makeover.
“Obviously he’s a veteran who has been in the league a long time and had a lot of success,” Klentak said. “I think this year you’ve seen a spike in his performance. His fastball is playing bigger than it has in the past. He’s learning to live at the top of the zone better and the results are following. You see the strikeout rate and the soft contact he’s generating. He’s really a different guy coming off his surgery a couple years ago.”
Phelps has always been valuable and flexible, but he’s at his best in a late-inning relief role. In 216 relief appearances he has a 3.32 ERA and has struck out 290 batters in 249⅓ innings.
“It’s another guy we can use late,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “I think when you look at our bullpen, we have options all over the place for the later innings. I had [Phelps] in New York and he’s a tremendous competitor.
Perhaps the best statistic that Phelps brings with him from the Brewers is a 9-3 record in his 12 appearances. That means Milwaukee wanted him on the mound when they were winning and it means that he usually kept that lead intact.
The Phillies also activated Ranger Suarez on Monday and he was one of their best bullpen arms a year ago. It’s not unreasonable to say that the Phillies’ greatest weakness two weeks ago has become a potential strength for Girardi with the additions of Phelps, Suarez, Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree and David Hale. Girardi believes Hector Neris has turned a corner, too.
The manager spent Monday afternoon discussing his uncertainty about how he is going to line up his arsenal of bullpen arms and you could tell the topic pleased him.
“The good thing is – knock on wood – they are all pitching well and that’s a good thing to have,” he said. “I’ll take that problem deciding who is going to close every day over the alternative of we’re not pitching well down there. So just keep pitching well and make my job difficult down there guys and I’ll love it.”
Because the bullpen was not addressed enough in the offseason, the Phillies need to finish strong in September to secure a playoff spot, but this is by far the best chance they’ve had at reaching the postseason during Klentak’s tenure as general manager.
The offense puts up five runs or more most nights, the starting rotation is solid and could get even better if rookie Spencer Howard continues to pitch the way he did Monday night against the Nationals and now the bullpen has been fortified.
“I think this team is in a good position to make a playoff run,” Klentak said.