If the baseball season was a highway — Route 162, if you will — Memorial Day would be the first major checkpoint. It represents the two-month mark, and there’s enough data for teams to begin assessing what they have and what they need.
The Phillies, to put it kindly, are at a crossroads.
Dave Dombrowski didn’t have to be there Monday in Cincinnati to watch Vince Velasquez, a prince of a No. 4 starter for most of May, turn back into a frog in an 11-1 thumping by the Reds to realize the Phillies need back-of-the-rotation help. And the president of baseball operations certainly knew the offense was underachieving before the Phillies went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left nine men on base in their third consecutive loss and 11th in 15 games.
But as those events unfolded in tandem — along with five runs allowed by mop-up men Chase Anderson and David Hale, another 0-for from struggling third baseman Alec Bohm, and a throwing error by shortstop Ronald Torreyes added to the toll for the worst defense in baseball — it was impossible not to wonder how many holes Dombrowski can plug before the July 30 trade deadline. Should he even bother?
“I’m not really one that, in a sense, is in charge of the roster,” said manager Joe Girardi, who does wield influence with the front office. “My job is to manage the guys in the room, and that’s what I focus on. A lot of times, at the end of the trade deadline, you’re saying, ‘What if we get this guy?’ It doesn’t do me any good. I’ve got to manage the guys in the room, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Clearly, though, the Phillies aren’t good enough. When April ended, they were 13-13, not great but the leader by one game in the National League East. As May came to a close, they were 25-29, 4 ½ games behind the front-running Mets — and nine games back in the loss column.
But the baseball season, more than other sports, is an endurance test for the body and the mind. And first baseman Rhys Hoskins, for one, believes the Phillies need to be reminded of that after just living through a dystopic 60-game schedule within a pandemic.
If this was last year, the Phillies’ season would be in peril. Sometimes, according to Hoskins, they have been carrying the weight after a loss rather than shrugging it off and moving on to the next day. They have 108 more next days — two-thirds of the season — remaining.
“It’s been a little hard to shake the feel of a 60-game sprint,” Hoskins said. “There’s probably a little bit of, I don’t want to say panic, but there’s a little earlier worry that maybe we’ve had as a group or guys have had individually that might not have happened in the past. That’s something we’ve got to shake. We’re, what, 54 games in? We have a lot of baseball left.”
Fair. And like every team, the Phillies have had injury issues. J.T. Realmuto just returned from a bruised wrist. Bryce Harper and Didi Gregorius will eventually come back, too, although neither is expected to play before the team returns home Friday.
But even Girardi said after a loss last week in Miami that “it’s not early.” He wants to see more urgency, especially with games in June against the Braves, Yankees, Mets, and Marlins, and a West Coast trip to face the Dodgers and Giants.
“We need to turn it around,” Girardi said. “I know we’re missing some guys, but other teams are missing guys, too. We just need to play better. We need to do all three facets of the game better. If not, we’re putting ourselves in a tough spot.”
It doesn’t get much tougher than a four-run deficit in the second inning when you’ve scored more than three runs in a game only twice since May 18 and not at all for a week. So when Velasquez gave up a two-run homer to Max Schrock and a two-run single to Tyler Naquin, holiday dinners in the Delaware Valley could commence without distractions.
Velasquez allowed a total of three runs in four previous starts in May. After giving up four in the second inning, he allowed two more in the third on Kyle Farmer’s two-run homer, opening a 6-1 Reds lead.
“It all starts with pitching, and I didn’t do my part by creating that momentum and having a good day today,” Velasquez said. “It’s kind of a [lousy] feeling.”
But it wasn’t like the Phillies didn’t have chances against Reds starter Wade Miley. They wasted a two-on, two-out opportunity in the first inning and a two-on, one-out chance in the second. In the fourth, they failed to score after getting the first two runners on base.
And to think, offense was supposed to be the Phillies’ strength.
“We get some guys back and get some guys feeling more like themselves, we’re going score some runs,” Hoskins said. “Something is going to happen, some big moment is going to happen.”
Hoskins insists the Phillies just need more time. This year, at least, they will have it.
“It’s such a fine line of pushing on the gas pedal 100 percent every single day because of the opportunities that are in front of us but also being able to play the long game and not allow the highs to get so high that the lows are going to be extremely low as well,” Hoskins said. “We’re just kind of facing those low lows right now, and we’ve got to find a way to weather the storm.”
The clouds are getting more ominous.