The Phillies’ bid to pull off their first three-game road series sweep since a mid-May 2019 trip to Colorado’s Coors Field started with some bad news and ended with a rather blah 5-1 loss to the Washington Nationals.
Before the first pitch Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park, the Phillies placed catcher J.T. Realmuto on the COVID-related injured list and called up rookie Rafael Marchan from triple-A Lehigh Valley.
“(Realmuto) was under the weather in the middle of the game (Wednesday) and when you’re under the weather in today’s world, you immediately go into COVID protocol,” manager Joe Girardi said. “So we’re hoping we get him back (Friday) or maybe the next day after he goes through all the protocols, but it’s what you have to do.”
What the Phillies had to do Thursday was play a second straight game without their All-Star catcher who was sidelined Wednesday with a bruised left knee, the result of being hit by a foul ball in the bottom of the seventh inning Tuesday. Thursday marked the fifth time in the last 13 games the Phillies did not have Realmuto in the starting lineup for one reason or another.
They were also without shortstop Didi Gregorius in the series finale. He left Wednesday’s game in the fifth inning with stiffness in his right elbow. Thursday was the sixth time in the 23 games he could not play and he’s likely to miss at least the series opener against the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday night in Dunedin, Fla., too.
In the last two weeks, the Phillies have also played a four-game series against Milwaukee without right fielder Bryce Harper after he injured his wrist on the same pitch he was frighteningly hit in the face with during a game in St. Louis. The team also went 15 recent games without Jean Segura at second base. His bat was scorching hot when he went on the injured list with a sore quad.
In other words, the Phillies’ depth has been tested quite a bit already this season and it has held up nicely.
“Yeah, I think so,” Girardi said. “I think we have some veterans on the bench and I also think we have some young kids that have just matured and become better players. A kid like (Nick) Maton. He’s come up and done a really good job.”
Maton, in fact, has been the biggest revelation on the roster through the season’s first 38 games. He did not make the squad out of spring training, but he has made 18 starts since being called to the big leagues and the Phillies realized since then that he is too valuable to be sent down.
Even Girardi admitted that Maton has been better than he anticipated based on the amount of playing time the rookie had received in spring training.
“We really didn’t get to see him play a whole lot of time, but he has been a really good surprise for us,” Girardi said. “Just the way he has handled himself, the way he has hung in against left-handers. I know he got to play last year [at the alternate site], but he really didn’t get to play. Playing in those intrasquad [games] is not the same as playing in games. I’ve been super impressed with the way he has handled himself.”
After going 1-for-3 in Thursday’s loss, his overall average stood at .299, which is second among rookies with at least 50 at-bats. His work in the field has been even more impressive. In six starts at shortstop and 12 at second base he has not made an error. He robbed Juan Soto of a hit in the bottom of the first Thursday, but even he could not prevent the two home runs off starter Zach Eflin that propelled the Nationals to a 4-1 lead later in the inning.
You could argue that Maton has been the Phillies’ best bench player, but if you’re matched up against the person making the case for Brad Miller you are in for a battle.
The only time it felt like the Phillies might have a chance late in the game Thursday was when Miller led off the top of the eighth with a pinch-hit double. That raised his average to .385 (5-for-13) as a pinch-hitter, but his best work has come on the days when he has started.
“He’s had a lot of big hits for us,” Girardi said. “You think about the first game of the series here. He played an excellent third base. He made some tough plays. He’s a veteran who knows how to do his job.”
Miller’s work at third base allowed Girardi to feel comfortable giving a struggling Alec Bohm a day off in the series opener against the Nats. Miller, signed back to the Phillies as a free agent after playing well in a reserve role with St. Louis last season, has started 13 games at five positions. He is hitting .305 with a .369 on-base percentage and an .844 OPS. He has three homers, eight RBIs, 10 runs scored, and an abundance of respect in the clubhouse.
“He’s one of those guys that all 29 other teams wish they had in their clubhouse,” Eflin said. “We’re very fortunate to have him. He keeps things really light. A lot of times you just follow his lead and that means playing hard and playing competitive and keeping it light at the same time.”
Backup catcher Andrew Knapp, who made his 10th start of the season Thursday, deserves an honorable mention among the bench players who have helped the Phillies stay afloat during some turbulent times.
Knapp went hitless in four at-bats in the series finale against the Nats, but he delivered huge run-padding hits in helping the Phillies win the first two games of the series and his .455 batting average with runners in scoring position has accounted for eight of his nine RBIs. The team is also 6-4 in Knapp’s 10 starts.
It was fair to question the Phillies’ depth coming into this season. It is also fair to say that the bench is a big reason why they are within striking distance of the first-place New York Mets nearly a quarter of the way through the season.