We all know their weaknesses: The Phillies strike out too much, they are defensively flawed, the back end of the rotation is lacking and please, please, please don’t even mention that gaping hole in center field.
And, yet, the Phillies left Citizens Bank Park on Thursday afternoon and headed for Atlanta as a first-place team following a four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers, a team that came to town in first place in the NL Central after a series victory over the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
The Phillies’ 2-0 victory in the series finale was not only their most impressive of the homestand but also of the season for the simple reason that it came against Brandon Woodruff, the underrated ace of the Brewers.
It also came courtesy of another brilliant pitching performance by Zack Wheeler, who is in a friendly and unspoken competition with Aaron Nola for the title of Phillies ace.
The Phillies were coming off consecutive losses to the Mets when the series started and the Brewers arrived having won nine of their last 14 games. In addition, Bryce Harper was back on the bench because of a sore wrist and hard-throwing reliever Jose Alvarado was starting a two-game suspension for inciting a bench-clearing discussion against the New York Mets last week.
Those did not seem to be conditions conducive to a hot streak, but the Phillies found a way to win the first three games of the series by a single run.
Closer Hector Neris set the tone by leaving the bases loaded and picking up a 40-pitch, five-out save in the series opener Monday night and Sam Coonrod kept it rolling with a five-out save Tuesday. Alvarado returned Wednesday and protected a one-run lead to pick up his second save and on the fourth day the bullpen rested, thanks to the second complete game of Wheeler’s career, a three-hit shutout that included eight strikeouts and took 118 pitches.
Despite their defects, the Phillies managed a sweep of a really good team, which must mean they also have some strong points that do not get mentioned often enough.
Joe Girardi noted that the Phillies are a resilient bunch, a characteristic that remains without measure in a sport that likes to gauge everything. Alec Bohm, after breaking a scoreless tie with a seventh-inning solo home run off Woodruff, talked about how the Phillies fight.
“I think everyone just knows that if we keep going up there and fighting, good things are going to happen,” Bohm said. “I think everyone kind of realizes that and there’s not a lot of panic in the dugout.”
Again, fight used in the manner Bohm described is something incalculable, but if you’ve watched the Phillies through 32 games it is possible to understand what he’s talking about.
Of course, the Phillies do also have a very obvious and measurable strength.
The top three pitchers in their starting rotation have been among the best trios in the game so far this season. Wheeler, with his second career shutout, lowered his ERA to a team-best 2.83. Nola is close behind at 2.89 and Zach Eflin is at a very respectable 3.49.
What that trio also gives the Phillies is innings. They have combined to throw 130 innings. No trio in baseball has more.
“It has been huge,” backup catcher Andrew Knapp said after handling Wheeler’s complete-game gem. “They’ve kept us in it. There has been some streakiness with the bats, but those guys have been able to grind the entire time. They’ve stepped up when we’ve needed them.”
The oft-maligned defense also stepped up in the series finale.
Following a leadoff double by Billy McKinney in the top of the third inning, Wheeler retired 18 straight batters and still had faced the minimum number of batters with one out in the ninth. The long string of Milwaukee outs started with a nice shoestring catch by first baseman Rhys Hoskins that became a double play when McKinney inexplicably took off from second base.
Bohm made a terrific play on a bunt by Kolten Wong in the fourth and shortstop Didi Gregorius, who has had his struggles in the field this season, made terrific plays in the fourth and eighth innings, the second of which was aided by a nice scoop from Hoskins. Knapp contributed a great catch on a foul ball in front of the Milwaukee dugout in the fifth and Andrew McCutchen, who has also had his share of defensive misadventures, made a difficult catch on a sharply hit line drive for the first out of the ninth inning.
Wheeler came to the defense of the defense after the game.
“Our defense is solid,” he said. “Don’t get it wrong. It was solid last year and it’s solid this year. We just make some boneheaded plays sometimes. Sometimes they are more costly than others so they stick out, but every team makes those plays sometimes. I know I can count on those guys any day of the week out there and they played a heck of a game behind me today and that’s the name of the game. Get ahead, let them put the ball in play and trust your defense.”
It was definitely part of the winning formula that allowed the Phillies to pull off a sweep that seemed highly unlikely at the start of the week. The first-place Phillies will tell you they are resilient and they fight.
And, yes, the first-place Phillies have plenty of weaknesses, too. Have we mentioned lately that they struggle to win on the road?