PITTSBURGH -- The Phillies started the second half of the season with the most favorable schedule in baseball as they played a slate full of teams with losing records. The Phillies still had to climb the standings, but their opposition appeared light.
“Don’t write that,” manager Joe Girardi said Saturday before a 3-2 loss as the Phils fell for a second straight night to the last-place Pirates.
The schedule may look easy, but nothing seems easy for the Phillies as they try to be more than just a .500 team. They are now two games below .500 and are in third place and trail the first-place Mets by 4.5 games. It’s hard to imagine the Phillies catching the Mets if they can’t win a series against teams like the Pirates, who sold off a cast of players before Friday’s trade deadline.
“We have two months left,” said starting pitcher Aaron Nola, who allowed two runs in six innings. “Every game matters, obviously. We all know that. It’s obviously not over. It would be nice to go on a good stretch here, but we have to take it game by game. Everyone knows that. That’s kind of what we have to do now. Go out tomorrow and take care of business.”
The Phillies begin a four-game series Monday in Washington after the Nationals sold heavily at the deadline. They play Arizona, the NL’s worst team, seven times in August and play the Marlins, Rockies, Cubs, Orioles, and Pirates in September. The Phillies are 14-16 this season against the worst four teams they’ve played: the Rockies, Marlins, Pirates, and Nationals. The schedule is favorable, but this weekend was a reminder that nothing is easy.
“You know what it is? I think young kids start to figure out who they are the more they play and they play to their potential,” Girardi said. “Sometimes there’s kids who you figure out their weaknesses, but I had a really young team and it took us 40-plus games for us to figure it out and for them to believe in themselves. Sometimes when you’re a young kid, you have confidence, but the first time you get knocked down a little bit, you’re like ‘Hmm. Can I do this?’ Then you figure out you can and that’s when they’re really dangerous.”
Alvarado in the ninth
The Phillies had new closer Ian Kennedy ready in the bullpen, but Girardi went with Jose Alvarado to use a left-hander in the ninth inning of a tie game. Four batters later, the game was over.
Bryan Reynolds hit Alvarado’s first pitch for a leadoff double and scored on a grounder to third by Jacob Stallings. Reynolds beat the throw from Alec Bohm and slid past J.T. Realmuto’s tag.
“It was to J.T.’s right, which allowed him to score,” Girardi said of the throw.
What’s up with Didi?
Freddy Galvis was in the dugout, but he won’t be ready to play until the middle of August as he works his way back from a quadriceps injury. So the Phillies will have to wait to see if he can give the lineup the production they’re struggling to get from Didi Gregorius.
“He’s just struggling offensively,” Girardi said of Gregorius. “What we’ve seen out of Didi last year and before he got hurt is that he’s really clutch and he had a lot of big RBIs for us. But he’s really scuffling. We need to get him going. We need his bat.”
Gregorius went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and has just 13 hits in 80 at-bats (.163) since returning on July 2 from the injured list. Ronald Torreyes had a two-out single in the ninth and could take away at-bats from Gregorius.
“We know the impact that Didi has when he’s right and we need to get him right,” Girardi said.
Good hustle, bad hustle
J.T. Realmuto started the eighth inning by stretching a single into double, but Bryce Harper quelled a rally when he was thrown out trying to steal second after singling in Realmuto. Harper’s aggressiveness on the base paths has paid off recently as he stole three bases last week and stretched singles into doubles. But his aggressiveness burnt the Phils in the eighth.
“He got thrown out and the catcher made a perfect throw,” said Girardi, who did not think Harper was too aggressive. “We push the envelope sometime. Obviously, it’s easy to second-guess when you get thrown out, but he’s been pretty good at picking his spot and he got thrown out tonight.”
Aaron Nola pitched strong for the second straight game, which could be an indication that he’s righted himself after a rough stretch. Nola allowed two runs -- both of which scored in the third inning -- in six innings on three hits. He struck out five and walked one.
Nola allowed 21 runs over a five-start stretch but has now allowed just three earned runs in his last 142/3 innings. The Phillies upgraded their rotation with the addition of Kyle Gibson, but they’ll need Nola to pitch the way he has in his last two starts if they’re going to build the momentum they need to chase down the Mets.
Nola’s signature curveball was on-point Saturday as he used it for 13 strikes. His inconsistent season has been troubled by poor fastball command and a lack of feel for his curve. He seemed to have both of those against the Pirates.
“The last two games have felt pretty good with all my pitches, especially my fastball command,” said Nola, who tweaked his mechanics. “Throwing the ball down is important for me. My misses are closer to each other instead of spraying all over the place. I think that’s been the key.”
Andrew McCutchen left the game in the seventh inning with right knee stiffness, but it’s not yet known how severe the injury is. The Phillies will have a better indication on Sunday morning. If McCutchen is unable to play, the Phillies will use a lineup for the series finale without Rhys Hoskins and McCutchen.
McCutchen went 0-for-3 and his spot in the order came up in the eighth inning. It’ll be tough to replace McCutchen in left field if he’s hurt as the Phils are already struggling to find a center fielder.
Kyle Gibson will make his Phillies debut in Sunday’s series finale against the Pirates.