This 2020 COVID-19 baseball season has often been referred to as a sprint, a somewhat fitting description, since you get to the finish line of a 60-game season a lot faster than the typical 162-game marathon.
For the Phillies, however, this season is more aligned with the high hurdles, and the tallest of their obstacles is directly in front of them.
That’s why it was so important Monday afternoon that the Phillies escaped from New York with a four-game split against the Mets, which came courtesy of Jean Segura’s screaming two-out, two-run homer off hard-throwing Mets reliever Miguel Castro in the 10th inning.
After consecutive losses at Citi Field and giving away a 6-0 lead Monday, the Phillies’ 9-8 victory gave them some momentum as they enter a stretch in which they’ll play nine games, including three seven-inning doubleheaders, in seven days. They will play a total of five doubleheaders and 23 games in 20 days between now and the season finale on Sept. 27 in Tampa Bay.
“I think it was really important, especially the way we jumped on them,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I felt like we could have scored 12 runs today. We hit the ball hard all over the place, and give them credit, they made the plays, and they were standing in the right spot, but I was thinking, ‘Wow, the favor is not with us today the way this was going.’ "
That thought must have engulfed the entire visiting dugout when Jeff McNeil crushed a first-pitch cutter from David Phelps into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning. The Phillies’ 6-0 lead with Zack Wheeler on the mound had turned into a 7-6 deficit, and the idea of leaving New York with three straight losses and letting the Mets draw closer in the standings seemed sickening.
The mood brightened some when rookie Alec Bohm tied the game with a two-out RBI single to right field in the eighth off reliever Jeurys Familia, and the Phillies’ dugout became downright giddy when Segura connected for his two-run homer in the 10th to complete his four-hit, five-RBI day.
Now, the schedule becomes a beast, and the Phillies’ depth, especially in the pitching department, will be tested.
“We don’t have a choice,” Girardi said when asked whether he thought he had enough pitching depth to get through the upcoming stretch. “You might see some people on the shuttle [from the alternate training site in Allentown]. We might need some fresh arms here and there, but we’ll find a way.”
The schedule has been grueling for a lot of teams because of a series of coronavirus outbreaks across baseball, but only one team faces a greater degree of difficulty than the Phillies. The St. Louis Cardinals, who sat idle for 16 days, will play a total of 11 doubleheaders before the season is over, including six in the next three weeks. Starting Tuesday, they will play 15 games in 11 days.
Other teams have been much more fortunate. It is believed the Marlins’ COVID-19 outbreak that so impacted the Phillies might have started during an exhibition road trip in Atlanta, but the Braves have been one of the teams least impacted. They have played three doubleheaders but do not have another one scheduled this season.
The second-place Phillies (20-17) managed to pull within two games of Atlanta with their win Monday and they also kept the Marlins 1½ games behind them while pushing the Mets to 3½ back. With seven games upcoming against the Marlins, this will have to be the time the Phillies figure out how to beat a division opponent that gave them fits last year and during this season’s opening weekend.
The Phillies’ schedule ahead begins with a doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday at Citizens Bank Park, and Girardi will send Zach Eflin and Vince Velasquez to the mound. Velasquez has not pitched in eight days, and he has not made a start since Aug. 20, but now the Phillies will likely lean on him for at least three starts before the season is over.
Truth is, however, Girardi doesn’t know exactly how he’s going to line up his pitching over these final 20 days.
“Jake [Arrieta] is going Thursday for sure, and that’s as far as we are right now,” Girardi said.
It will be interesting to see whether the manager turns to an opener or what used to be called a bullpen game at any point during these final three weeks. It’s no secret the Phillies’ bullpen has struggled, and it would be an exaggeration to say it has become drastically better even with a flurry of trade-deadline additions. Since Aug. 22, which was the day after the Phillies added Brandon Workman, Heath Hembree ,and David Hale, the ’pen has a 5.90 ERA.
Even with one of the best offensive teams in baseball, that’s not going to work, and Girardi knows it.
“So there are things we have to clean up a little bit,” the manager said. “But you know we’re going to work on it.”
And they’re going to work a lot in the season’s final 20 days.