For most of the last 11 weeks, the Phillies have taken the measure of their division rivals and found that the National League East is eminently winnable. Because despite their own long list of flaws, the level of play, from New York through Washington and Atlanta and all the way down to Miami, is so very ... meh.
That isn’t the case in California.
Go west, as the Phillies did after Sunday’s game, and you will find the defending World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers humming right along at 39-26 despite a spate of injuries and Gabe Kapler’s surprising San Francisco Giants, who only have the best record in the league (40-25). Oh, and the 38-29 San Diego Padres are no slouch, either.
The NL East, by comparison, has two teams above .500. And it took three walk-off wins in a row and a 7-0 romp over the middling New York Yankees Sunday for the Phillies to join the Mets among the ranks of the winning teams for the first time since May 19.
So, yes, the road to the playoffs cuts through California like a fault line.
The Mets did well to not fall through the cracks by achieving a split in San Diego last weekend. Now it’s the Phillies’ turn, as they brace to play at Dodger Stadium Monday night for the first time in 743 days followed by a three-game weekend series in San Francisco.
“Not easy teams coming up,” pitcher Aaron Nola said. “We’re ready for the challenge. We’re going to compete.”
A few things to watch as the Phillies face the West’s best:
♦ As long as Odúbel Herrera and Jean Segura keep hitting at the top of the order, the lineup is as deep as it has been all year. It allows manager Joe Girardi to push Andrew McCutchen and Alec Bohm down to the No. 6 and 7 spots, respectively, where they are able to drive in runs.
But it also makes the offense more diverse. The Phillies scored a run on a safety squeeze last week against the Braves and scored 19 runs without hitting a homer in the last three games because they bunched together 35 hits, including 10 doubles, and made more contact, striking out only 19 times.
They won’t be able to rely on homers at Dodger Stadium and Oracle Park, two notoriously big yards. But they also won’t have to contend with Dodgers co-aces Trevor Bauer and Walker Buehler, although they are scheduled to face Clayton Kershaw on Wednesday.
“To pepper the ball to all sides of the field, work the opposite side of the field like we’ve been doing, just using the whole field has been good for us. It shows how dynamic our lineup can be,” said McCutchen, 13-for-38 (.342) with a .684 slugging percentage since being dropped out of the leadoff spot. “And it shows that we don’t always have to be the guys hitting 450-foot homers. When we keep the ball low, hit line drives, good things happen.”
♦ The Phillies hoped the lineup would get even deeper this week with the return of Didi Gregorius. But the mystery of the shortstop’s swollen right elbow continues.
Gregorius has missed 26 games with persistent stiffness that never really went away after he landed on that arm while tracking a popup in shallow left field on April 16. He went on a minor league rehab assignment last week, but after two games for triple-A Lehigh Valley, he felt additional soreness.
Girardi said the Phillies “worked it out” and plan to get Gregorius back in the lineup “soon.” They need him. Ronald Torreyes has filled in well at shortstop, going 18-for-62 (.290) and driving in 10 runs in 15 games. But Gregorius represents another middle-of-the-order lefty bat to pair with Bryce Harper.
♦ After Héctor Neris blew his second save in as many games Saturday, Girardi said he’s “not making any changes” at closer. He praised Neris for pitching well to this point (he had a 1.90 ERA a week ago) and noted that even the best closers go through rough patches.
“I had the pleasure of catching and managing the greatest closer of all time,” Girardi said, referring to Mariano Rivera. “I saw him blow saves. I did. Closers go through it. We’ll get him back on track and we’ll go from there.”
But you do have to wonder about Neris’ psyche, especially at Dodger Stadium, where he has had some infamous meltdowns over the years. And Archie Bradley, the Phillies’ most viable closer alternative, is finally starting to pitch better, too.
The situation bears watching.
♦ Not to make too much of a week on the West Coast, but it could help inform president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s approach to the trade deadline at the end of July.
Entering the week, the Phillies are closer to the division lead (three games behind the Mets) than the second wild-card spot (four games behind the Padres). According to the playoff oddsmakers at Fangraphs, the Phillies have a 20% chance to make the playoffs but only a 9.4% chance to do so via the wild card.
If they show they can hang with the best of the West, the wild card might seem like an equally plausible path to the postseason as a division title. And that might mean the difference between making moves on the margins of the roster and a deadline splash.
“We’re ready to get out there and compete in those games,” Nola said. “That’s what we’ve been doing every game. This week’s been pretty fun with the three walk-offs. It kind of just shows the resiliency. We’re never out of it.”