Phillies manager Joe Girardi has tried nine players in the leadoff spot this season, batting Andrew McCutchen there 43 times and even starting the lineup once with catcher J.T. Realmuto.
But no matter the hitter, the Phillies have struggled to find production at the top of their lineup — their leadoff hitters rank last this season in the National League in average and on-base percentage. Finally, they may have found a solution.
Odúbel Herrera, who hit leadoff Monday night against the Nationals for the 39th time this season, is batting .325 in August with a .376 on-base percentage in 86 plate appearances. Girardi has hit him first this month against right-handed hitters, and he entered Monday with the fourth-highest OPS (1.090 in 48 plate appearances) and fifth-highest WRC+ (181) this month among leadoff hitters. (Weighted Runs Created Plus accounts for external factors like ballparks or an opposing pitcher’s ERA.)
“I really like being at the top of the lineup,” said Herrera, who has hit first in eight of the Phillies’ last 12 games. “It actually motivates me. It keeps me engaged. It’s important to get on base. It’s like I’m on a mission. I have to get on base for them.”
It’s been a small sample size, but it’s enough for the Phillies to know what it’s like to have success at the top spot. And it could be a key to unlocking a lineup that is trying to overcome the absence of Rhys Hoskins and the uncertainty of Realmuto (shoulder) to reach the postseason for the first time in a decade.
“I like it. If he’s playing like he is this month, I think he’s on about 36, 37% of the time. That’s pretty darn good,” Girardi said of Herrera batting leadoff. “He’s a guy where it’s not just a single a lot of the time. It’s a double, it’s a home run. It opens up the hole for Jean [Segura].”
This isn’t the first time Herrera has heated up this season at the plate — he hit .309 with an .860 OPS during a 31-game stretch in May and June before drastically cooling off. Herrera was slowed this summer by an ankle injury, which he tried to play through before he landed on the injured list in July.
Healthy again, Herrera has been productive ever since. And the Phillies hope this streak can last another month as they’ve finally found a leadoff hitter.
“I feel healthy and when I’m healthy, I’m capable of doing things,” Herrera said. “I’m capable of playing my game, the game I know how to play. I can hustle, I can hit the ball well, I can run well, I can play defense well. When I feel free, when I feel that nothing is stopping me, I play much better.”
Realmuto was held out of the lineup Monday night against the Nationals after rolling his ankle in Sunday’s 7-4 win over Arizona. Realmuto was already playing with a sore shoulder as the injuries are starting to pile up before the final month of the regular season. Rafael Marchan caught Monday and Brad Miller played first base. Girardi said Sunday that Realmuto was day to day.
The Phillies entered Monday trailing Atlanta by 4½ games in the National League and hold a 20.5% chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. With three games in Washington and three games in Miami, this week is an opportunity to gain ground if the Phillies can prevail in the games they are expected to win. The Braves play at the Dodgers and Rockies. But those “easy” wins become a bit more challenging without Realmuto.
The Nationals promoted catching prospect Keibert Ruiz before Monday night’s game. Ruiz, 23, was the headliner of the package the Nats received last month from the Dodgers for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner. … Matt Moore faces left-hander Patrick Corbin on Tuesday night before Aaron Nola faces right-hander Paolo Espino on Wednesday.