For two-thirds of this sprint season, the Phillies were lucky. Not only were they COVID-free, but they also avoided the injuries that were piling up across baseball. The rest of the National League East must have been so jealous.
But now -- in a meatgrinder of a September schedule, no less -- they have lost two starting pitchers in a span of three days, the length of their absences undetermined. And catcher J.T. Realmuto -- the most indispensable player on the roster -- might have tweaked his hip.
Rookie starter Spencer Howard felt stiffness in his right shoulder and left in the fourth inning Saturday night in Miami, three days after Zack Wheeler mangled a fingernail on his right hand. And whatever else happened in a 12-6 win that evened a pivotal seven-game series with the Marlins at two games apiece -- Didi Gregorius' grand slam, Bryce Harper’s drought-ending home run, two more hits for hot-shot rookie Alec Bohm -- must be viewed through the prism of a suddenly overcrowded training room.
“We had been really fortunate,” manager Joe Girardi said. “A lot of clubs have had to deal with this. Everyone’s got to find a way to get through it. It’s the tough part of our schedule. We’ve got to grind through it.”
With three more doubleheaders and 17 games overall in 15 days to close the regular season, the Phillies are going to need a six-man rotation and a bullpen start or two -- and that was with Wheeler and Howard taking their usual turns.
Wheeler made about 60 throws from as far as 90 feet before Saturday’s game and “came out pretty well,” according to Girardi. But because his season is literally hanging by a fingernail, he won’t start until at least the middle of the week at home against the New York Mets.
“If that nail comes off, he’s done for the year,” Girardi said. “We just said, ‘We’re not taking a chance. Let’s be smart about it and give it as much time to heal as possible.’”
Howard, meanwhile, retired 10 of the first 11 Marlins batters, including back-to-back strikeouts of Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte to open the fourth inning. But he told pitching coach Bryan Price that he was having trouble getting his shoulder loose before each inning.
Additional exercises didn’t seem to work before the fourth inning, and after Howard gave up a two-out single, a walk, and a three-run homer to Brian Anderson that slashed the Phillies' lead to 5-3, Girardi, Price, Realmuto and athletic trainer Paul Buchheit had a mound conference with the 24-year-old, who missed two months in the minors last season with a shoulder issue.
This wasn’t the time to take chances.
“I would say it’s not as severe as [last year] but like a comparable sensation,” Howard said. “Last year was pretty sharp and aggressive when I did throw. This felt a little rusty, a little slow to warm up. I’m not necessarily concerned about it.”
But Howard also isn’t sure he will be ready to pitch in five days.
“Probably too early to say,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can to make that next start. Ultimately it’s my career, so hopefully I’ll be able to decide if I can make it or not.”
The Phillies weren’t overly concerned about Realmuto, who felt a twinge in his hip while running out a grounder in the eighth inning. He caught the bottom of the eighth, then was lifted for a pinch hitter in the ninth.
“Just have to see how he is [Sunday],” Girardi said, “and keep our fingers crossed.”
The Phillies wished Howard could’ve worked deep into the game, especially with Sunday’s looming doubleheader, the second in three days between the teams. They gave him a big lead, too.
Gregorius rocked his seventh career grand slam in the first inning against Marlins starter Jose Urena, continuing his ridiculously successful production with the bases loaded (31-for-86 in his career).
Harper led off the third inning by slicing a home run the opposite way to left field. It marked the first time since the first inning on Aug. 22 -- a span of 83 plate appearances -- that he went deep. He added a single in the fifth inning and a double in the Phillies' five-run eighth and has reached base in six of seven plate appearances since snapping an 0-for-18 skid Friday night.
And as the bullpen churned with Heath Hembree, JoJo Romero, Brandon Workman, Tommy Hunter and finally Adam Morgan, the Phillies kept tacking on runs to keep the lead comfortable.
The Phillies are 23-20, the fifth-best record in the league. If they finish even 8-9, they should still be among the top eight teams in the NL, which would give the franchise its first playoff berth since 2011.
But after a run of good health, their chances of playing deep into October might rest with a speedy return from Wheeler and Howard.
“All those great Phillies teams, they always had pitching, and pitching wins championships,” Harper said. “You can score as many runs as you want, but you have to be able to pitch well also. Hopefully Wheels can get healthy and get out there. Hopefully Howard can as well, and they can just go out there and pitch to the best of their ability.”