Andrew McCutchen finished his on-field interview Monday night with the Phillies’ TV broadcast and a crew of fans still lingering in Citizens Bank Park broke out in cheers as McCutchen walked down the dugout steps.
“Uncle Larry,” they chanted, a reference to McCutchen’s social media alter-ego.
Minutes earlier, McCutchen turned a dispiriting loss into a 6-5 win with a three-run homer off Nationals closer Brad Hand. And now he was leaving the field -- with the home-run hat hanging off his back and waving to the cheering fans -- as a hero.
The trade deadline is Friday and every win gives the front office more motivation to buy. McCutchen’s swing may have done more than give the Phillies’ their 50th win of the season. It may have helped sway Dave Dombrowski to believe his team can hunt down the first-place Mets.
“That’s a big moment for us,” manager Joe Girardi said. “These games are really important for us. We’re at home. We’re trying to make up ground.”
McCutchen has hit eight walk-off homers, but he said it never gets old. This was his first with the Phillies. And it came at a pivotal juncture.
“It definitely felt good,” McCutchen said. “Especially in that moment. Being able to come through was gratifying.”
The Phillies started the ninth inning down two runs before Jean Segura doubled off Hand. Bryce Harper worked a one-out walk to bring up McCutchen. He needed just one pitch. Hand threw a first-pitch fastball and McCutchen was ready for it as he sent his homer to right field.
“We’re a resilient club here,” McCutchen said. “We know what we’re capable of doing. It doesn’t matter what the score is. It doesn’t matter what inning it is. If we keep it close, we know we have the opportunity to win that ball game. We never felt like we were out of it.”
The Phillies picked up a half-game on the Mets, who split a doubleheader with Atlanta. The Phillies will enter Tuesday trailing the Mets by 31/2 games. The Phillies are only one-game over .500 but first place remains in reach. It’s going to be interesting to see how Dombrowski operates before Friday’s deadline.
“I’m not too focused on what we do or what we don’t do,” McCutchen said. “It’s not my job. My job is just to show up and play ball and try to win a ball game. We know what we have in that clubhouse. We know we can win with what we have in that clubhouse. So if we do have an addition there, it’s only going to make us better.”
Spencer Howard faced the minimum number of batters through three innings before fading in the fourth, but this time the pitcher didn’t fatigue from running the bases or by eating the wrong pre-game meal.
Instead, he was done in by a piece of skin that ripped off his right middle finger.
The callus that covered a blister ripped off during Monday’s start, leaving Howard’s finger “a little tender,” Girardi said. The Phillies expect Howard to start on Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Howard’s health is key as he’s filling the rotation void left by Zach Eflin, who is on the injured list with a sore knee.
“I got a blister a couple weeks ago and it kind of has been catching on my slider and peeling away from my healthy skin,” Howard said. “That’s kind of what happened in the last couple innings. I started tearing it up and it got to a point where it was kind of throbby. We trimmed it off and it looks good right now.”
Through three innings, Howard appeared to be perhaps building something after throwing three scoreless innings a week earlier. And then the fourth inning arrived.
The right-hander’s average fastball velocity dipped to 91.7 mph after he touched 97.2 mph in the second inning. Josh Bell and Josh Harrison hit back-to-back RBI triples, Gerardo Parra singled in a run to right field, and Girardi left the dugout with an athletic trainer. His night was finished.
Howard’s velocity dip was similar to his first five starts this season when he tired after a few innings. His fastball averaged 94.4 mph in the first, 94.7 mph in the second, and 92.6 in the third, before dropping to 91.7 in the fourth.
“It’s frustrating,” Howard said “I just have to take my victories where I can get them. The first three innings, I felt pretty good so I’ll roll with that and keep building on it.”
Despite losing Howard in the fourth inning, Girardi avoided using a long reliever as he seemed to manage to win. Brandon Kintzler, Connor Brogdon, José Alvarado, and Héctor Neris combined for 41/3 scoreless innings before Archie Bradley allowed a run in the ninth. Bradley misplayed a grounder hit back to the mound and Didi Gregorius was unable to handle a high chopper. If both of those plays are made, the Phillies would have escaped the ninth without a run.
Girardi will likely not be able to use the same strategy if Matt Moore is unable to pitch deep on Tuesday night.
Girardi’s bullpen usage proved important when Rhys Hoskins hit a three-run homer in the sixth. Thanks to the bullpen, the Phils were still in it as Hoskins’ homer cut Washington’s lead to one.
Leave ‘em loaded
J.T. Realmuto turned a first-inning out into an infield single by busting down the first-base line and beating Nationals first baseman Josh Bell to the bag. It was a heads-up play and two batters later, the Phils had the bases loaded with one out.
But the rally was quickly extinguished. Hoskins popped up to shallow right field and Juan Soto threw out Jean Segura at home after he tagged from third. It was a curious decision to send Segura.
The Phillies went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position after going a combined 6-for-56 in their previous six games before McCutchen homered.
Matt Moore will start Tuesday night against Washington right-hander Erick Fedde. Moore allowed six runs in six innings in his last start against Atlanta. He could have trouble against the Nats, who have the second-highest batting average (.269) in the majors against left-handed pitchers, highest on-base percentage (.347), and second-highest slugging percentage (.445).