For three days this week in Colorado, two equal but opposing forces tugged at the Phillies.
It has been 13 games, 8% of the schedule. In football terms, it’s barely the second quarter of Week 2, too soon to form judgments about almost anything and surely premature to panic, even over a 5-8 start that everyone agrees is disappointing.
But it also has been 11 years since the Phillies made the playoffs. And owner John Middleton’s chips are squarely in the middle of the table since he authorized a franchise-record payroll that last month cleared the $230 million luxury-tax threshold. There’s an expectation — and a level of pressure — that comes with that.
So while Kyle Schwarber and other newcomers to the clubhouse would have stayed mostly chill regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s sweep-averting 9-6 victory over the Rockies at Coors Field, manager Joe Girardi, who has been here since 2020 and isn’t guaranteed to stay beyond this season, took on a more urgent tone when he said the Phillies had to “do whatever it takes” to win the finale.
And here’s the thing: Both perspectives are correct.
Suggesting that Game 13 out of 162 is must-win territory is patently ridiculous. History is littered with teams that overcame poor Aprils to achieve October glory. The Atlanta Braves started 5-8 last season — heck, they were 52-55 on Aug. 1 — and won the World Series. In 2019, the Washington Nationals started 19-31 and went all the way. You get the idea.
But the Phillies haven’t earned the benefit of anyone’s patience. Girardi seems to know that. Why else would an even-keeled manager with a winning track record elsewhere remix the batting order after only eight games? He downplayed it, claiming to have just created more separation between lefties Schwarber and Bryce Harper. But three leadoff men and four two-hole hitters in 13 games qualifies as casino-level shuffling.
Girardi says the latest alignment, with Jean Segura and Rhys Hoskins in the top two spots, will stay the same “for a little bit.” We’ll see.
It’s fine. A little early-season urgency from the manager’s office may even appeal to Phillies fans, most of whom aren’t shy about armchair skippering whether Girardi, Gabe Kapler, or Charlie Manuel are in charge.
Besides, there’s probably enough veteran leadership in the clubhouse now — with Schwarber and Nick Castellanos joining Harper, J.T. Realmuto, and Hoskins, among the position players — to modulate anything resembling overreaction while also recognizing the importance of nipping adversity in the proverbial bud.
Castellanos also noted the Phlilies must ”continue to get used to playing with each other.” There‘s truth in that, too.
“We’re a really good team,” Schwarber said. “We should expect really good things out of us. I think the more we can just take the pressure off a few bad games, we have to be able to put it behind us. We have to know that, at the end of the day, this is a really good team that can do some really good things.”
A few other observations after two weeks:
Caution with starting pitchers
Across baseball, only three pitchers — Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, the Mets’ Max Scherzer, and Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi — have thrown 100 pitches in a start. Every team, it seems, is being careful after the three-week spring training.
Girardi said the training wheels are nearly off for Aaron Nola and Kyle Gibson. Zach Eflin and Ranger Suárez may not be far behind. But so much hinges on ace Zack Wheeler.
In two starts, Wheeler’s average fastball velocity is down to 94.7 mph, far off last season’s 97.2 mph average. He threw a bullpen session Wednesday at Coors Field, another sign he isn’t injured, only building arm strength after not starting a spring training game because of the flu and rainy weather.
Wheeler did experience shoulder soreness at the outset of his offseason throwing program in December. And if this is equivalent to the middle of spring training for him, as Girardi suggested, a dead-arm phase wouldn’t be unusual. Maybe Wheeler is holding back because his arm isn’t ready to unbridle his heater.
Regardless, the situation bears watching Saturday against the Brewers.
“I don’t know if it’ll be Saturday, but I expect at some point [the velocity] is going to be back to where it was,” Girardi said. “I think it’ll get back to where it needs to be.”
Rookie infielder Bryson Stott is hitless in 18 at-bats after going 4-for-12 to begin his major league career.
“I think he’s expanded [his zone] a little bit more,” Girardi said. “At times he’s probably been more aggressive than what he likes to be.”
It happens to everyone, and more often to young hitters. But Stott’s struggle, as well as Didi Gregorius’ bruised left hand, has created at-bats for infielder Johan Camargo, who is 13-for-34 with a .417 on-base percentage after a four-hit game Wednesday.
Segura has nicknamed Camargo “Netflix” because he plays with a flair the second baseman says merits its own show. The Phillies signed Camargo in the offseason because of his smooth defense at multiple positions. But if he continues to produce at the plate, it will be hard to take him out of the lineup.
“Make it hard,” Girardi said. “You could always play your way into a bigger role.”
Finally, the best story so far in the Phillies’ farm system has been right-hander Francisco Morales.
Since the Phillies informed him in spring training that he would go from starting to the bullpen, the big 22-year-old right-hander has minimized his repertoire to two pitches — fastball and slider — and allowed one hit and four walks while striking out 10 in seven scoreless innings over four appearances at double-A Reading.
Like Seranthony Domínguez in 2018, Morales will move quickly through the system if he continues to have success.
One person who isn’t surprised: Suárez. He was so struck by Morales’ slider as they played catch early in spring training that he asked him for tips to improve his own.
“He told me how he grips the slider and what it does for him, how much it helps him,” Suárez said. “I said, ‘OK, I’m going to try it out to see what happens. It’s been fine.’”
Before long, they may be able to work on it together in the majors.