We’ve arrived at a portion of the season that, in previous years, has required an objective observer like myself to douse Phillies fans with an ice-cold bucket of reality. Generally, this has consisted of little more than a ritualistic reading of names. Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, etc. Some things make a case for themselves, and the Phillies rotation is usually one of them. If you can’t identify a team’s No. 2 starter, that team probably isn’t a contender. If Pivetta’s name even crosses your mind, well. . .splash!
Except, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a lot of things are different here in the year 2020, and it’s looking like we might need to count the Phillies among them. For the first time in nearly a decade, you wouldn’t be a fool to think that this season will extend beyond Game 162 (or, this being 2020, Game 62). In fact, it is growing increasingly likely that the fools are the ones staking the opposite position.
You saw it again on Tuesday evening. For a stretch of about 35 minutes, the Phillies were a team destined to be eulogized. One moment, Tommy Hunter was a rejuvenated setup man who had held opponents scoreless in each of his eight previous outings. The next, he was Tommy Hunter again, a 34-year-old right-hander who is somehow still around to disappoint. A 4-3 lead became a 5-4 deficit with a couple of swings that should echo into the next offseason. The slider Hunter hung to Boston’s Bobby Dalbec couldn’t have been easier to hit if it had been a brightly colored animal made out of paper mache, and the Red Sox rookie infielder dealt with it accordingly. A couple of batters later, Rafael Devers golfed a pitch that somehow traveled from his shoestrings to the wall in right-center, where it bounced safely above the outstretched glove of Bryce Harper for an RBI double that gave the Red Sox a 5-4 lead.
Here, in these moments, was every reason you could possibly need to doubt these Phillies. Soon thereafter, came the reason to believe.
There is a chance that, five years from now, Alec Bohm’s name exists as the latest in the periodic reminders from the Phillies' farm system that all that glitters is not gold. The legacies of Domonic Brown and Jake Thompson and Maikel Franco are enough to warrant extreme caution when it comes to projecting careers out of moments. But it might not be a coincidence that the Phillies current charge up the National League standings began at roughly the same moment the rookie third baseman arrived. His game-winning at-bat against Matt Barnes was a case study in the preternatural approach that he brings to the plate, his go-ahead single coming on a two-strike breaking pitch that he easily served through the left side of the infield to push two runs across the plate. He finished the game with four RBI, all of them with two out, giving him 15 in his first 23 games. The Phillies entered Tuesday’s nightcap with a 16-7 record in Bohm’s starts. This after going 5-8 before his promotion.
“You look at him and it looks like he’s been playing ball up here for 10 years,” said Zach Eflin, who pitched five solid innings in the win.
Here’s reality as it stands through 39 games. These aren’t last year’s Phillies, nor the year before’s. In Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Rhys Hoskins, they have three middle-of-the-order bats whose track records suggest that their present level of production can continue all season. In Didi Gregorius and Andrew McCutchen, they have a couple of professional hitters who were not on the field for most or all of Gabe Kapler’s final season, and who both have the potential to get hot and carry a team for weeks. But the biggest differentiators on this team are the two guys at the top of the starting rotation and the kid at the hot corner.
One day before Bohm’s most recent heroics, Zack Wheeler had a night that is quickly becoming the norm. In six innings, he struck out seven and walked none and held the Mets to three runs before watching the bullpen do its best to ruin another win. Through eight starts, Wheeler has logged 51 innings with a sparkling 2.47 ERA. He has yet to record fewer than 17 outs in a start, and he has not given up more than three runs in any of them.
In doing so, Wheeler is proving to be one of the offseason’s great bargains, and giving general manager Matt Klentak a much-needed win. Wheeler might not be Gerrit Cole, who is currently dominating the AL East the same way he did the AL Central, but the Yankees gave Cole an additional four years and $206 million above what Wheeler got from the Phillies.
What matters most to the Phillies is that Wheeler is neither Stephen Strasburg nor Madison Bumgarner, who signed for a combined 12 years and $330 million and, between them, have allowed 26 earned runs in 26⅓ innings. Lots of people raised an eyebrow when the Diamondbacks signed Bumgarner for the same number of years and $33 million it took for the Phillies to sign Wheeler. When Klentak labeled Wheeler and Nola as good as any 1-2 combo in the National League, he drew some scoffs. But there’s an argument to be made that there isn’t an NL contender that would have the Phillies on the wrong side of the matchup through two games. The Padres are the only other team in the league with two starters who rank among the top 10 in ERA. The Cubs are the only other team with two starters averaging at least six innings per outing.
Wheeler’s latest outing ended in fitting fashion, with the bullpen blowing a 6-3 lead and Bohm hitting a game-tying single in the eighth to set up the eventual extra-innings heroics. It’s a combination that we should expect to continue. The big question of this last month of games: Will the bad or the good win out?