It was Cardboard Cutout Appreciation Day at Citizens Bank Park and here’s hoping it is not an annual event. As nice as it was to have all those stiffs sit in for the actual fans this season and as many good stories as some of the cutouts provided, there is no substitute for the theater provided by real fans.
The Phillies, as it turned out, were more fortunate than most teams because they had a couple of guys from South Jersey — Oscar Alvarado and Brett MacMinn — who refused to be shut out of this COVID-19 season. Even though fans in the stands were forbidden, the Phandemic Krew showed up religiously to every home game and used their air horn, cowbell, drums and vocal cords to support the ballclub.
It’s impossible to quantify how much of a difference they made, but they did make it into the final credits as the Phillies thanked them in the game notes before Sunday’s 6-3 home-finale loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“You were heard and you made a difference,” the notes read before pointing out that the ballclub averaged 5.52 runs in its first 31 home games, the second-highest mark in Citizens Bank Park history. That number dropped to 5.44 with Sunday’s three-run output, but that was still good enough for the third-best average in ballpark history.
This much has definitely been true: The Phillies have been far better at home than they have been on the road, and that should be cause for concern as they begin a seven-game road trip that will determine their postseason fate. The Phillies finished 19-13 at home and are just 8-13 away from Citizens Bank Park.
They average fewer than five runs per game on the road and the staff ERA is 5.78 compared to 4.86 at home. The Phillies also have won just one road series all season, a two-gamer against Washington near the end of August.
After saying earlier in the season that he did not think there would be much of a home-field advantage in this season without fans, Phillies manager Joe Girardi admitted that his team did, in fact, enjoy the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park.
“It’s always nice to come home,” Girardi said. “I think players enjoy playing at home because it’s somewhat of a normal life. You are in your place, you’re with your family, you’re in your own bed, you understand the ballpark and what you can do and can’t do, so I do feel it’s more of a comfort thing than anything else. But we also had a few fans and we could hear them, which was really nice and I’m very thankful for that.”
This could be an even bigger concern for the Phillies on their final road trip: Before they completed their home schedule, right fielder Bryce Harper joined first baseman Rhys Hoskins and catcher J.T. Realmuto among the injured starting nine. Harper appeared to suffer an injury trying to track down a Bo Bichette triple in the top of the seventh inning, but still went to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the inning.
After he struck out, however, Harper could be seen on camera telling bench coach Rob Thomson and Girardi that he could not continue.
“Some lower back stiffness,” Girardi said. “We’ll see how he feels tomorrow and we’ll see if he’s available for me tomorrow.”
And so the uncertainty about whether the Phillies are a playoff team lingers into the season’s final week. At the moment they are the first wild card and the seventh seed, which would at least get them a trip to a road city for for a three-game series against either the Cubs or Braves, both of whom are destined to win division titles. Fall to the eighth seed and they’ll find themselves in Los Angeles playing against the team with the best record in baseball.
Two teams — Cincinnati and Milwaukee — are just a half-game behind the Phillies, as are Gabe Kapler’s San Francisco Giants, so nothing is guaranteed.
“Every game from here on out is important because there are a bunch of teams fighting for these spots now,” Girardi said.
The idea of having to play any of the final seven games without the trio of Harper, Realmuto, and Hoskins is daunting, but now a real possibility. The underachieving Phillies stayed afloat by taking three of four games from Toronto in large part because of some performances by overachieving rookies. Rookie catcher Rafael Marchan’s game-tying home run in the second game of Friday’s doubleheader was the biggest hit of the weekend and rookie Connor Brogdon provided some stellar relief in that same game to pick up his first win.
Now the Phillies begin their penultimate road series of the season by throwing Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola in the first two games against Washington at Nationals Park. If need be, which seems likely that it will, Girardi will also be able to start Wheeler and Nola in the final two games of the season in Tampa Bay.
The last time Wheeler and Nola went to the mound, the Phillies lost games to the New York Mets they should have won, a common theme during this often maddening season.
“I feel good going into these seven games,” Girardi said.
That’s probably based on his confidence in his two best starters, but the Phillies finishing on the road remain far from a lock to end their eight-year playoff drought.