The last game that Joe Girardi managed for the Phillies ended with handshakes and high fives and music blaring in the clubhouse. After a 16-game meat grinder against the iron of the National League, there was honest-to-goodness joy in Mudville.
But two days later, on June 3, Girardi got fired, the consequence of a 22-29 start that he agreed was unacceptable. Since then, the Phillies are 14-3 under interim manager Rob Thomson and back in the mix in an eight-team race for six playoff spots.
What caused the turnaround? Was it as simple as a managerial change?
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Nick Castellanos said the other day in Washington. “All I know is guys are in good moods in the clubhouse. We’re playing loose. We’re happy. If that translates to wins, I don’t know.”
It’s a fascinating chicken-and-egg conversation. What comes first: a relaxed, convivial clubhouse atmosphere or a winning streak?
“I think they go hand in hand,” Castellanos said.
He’s probably right. But the slugging outfielder’s characterization of the vibe around the Phillies indicates that he believes the former may precede the latter. It also could be construed as an implication that the Phillies were tight and unhappy playing for Girardi.
“I’m not implying anything,” Castellanos said. “I’m saying that when you play baseball with pressure or expectations the game can become less enjoyable.”
It’s true that Girardi can be wound tighter than a spring. It also didn’t help that the Phillies dragged out a decision about his 2023 club option, rendering him a lame duck entering the season.
Thomson, Girardi’s longtime bench-coaching sidekick, is more laid-back. He communicates well with players. Upon taking over, he set incremental goals: climb back to .500, then get to five games over, then 10, then 15. It took the Phillies seven games to reach the first goal. They got to the second in 16 games.
“We’ve got a good club,” Thomson said over the weekend. “We knew that coming to spring training.”
There’s no denying Thomson has helped create a lighter mood. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine Girardi dressing in a suit and fedora and posing for a team picture on the runway in front of the charter jet, as Thomson did Sunday.
But everyone can let the good times roll when a team is rolling. And those pressure-packed expectations? Like it or not, that’s a reality for a team that has a franchise-record payroll ($238 million, as calculated for luxury tax purposes) and a decade-long playoff drought. The truest test of those positive vibes will come when the Phillies lose three or four games in a row.
“I think it helps that we’re winning games, right?” Bryce Harper said. “Everybody’s happy when we win. Everybody’s happy when you play good baseball. It’s fun to win. It’s not fun to lose.”
Said Aaron Nola: “The more you win, the more fun you have, the better it is. It’s pretty simple.”
It’s overly simplistic, then, to chalk up the Thomson Turnaround to a managerial change. Replacing Girardi may have been a shock to the players’ collective systems — a reality check, as Kyle Schwarber put it.
But the Phillies’ revival can be attributed to several other measurable factors.
It starts at the top
Through the end of May, the Phillies’ leadoff and No. 2 hitters were batting .225 with a .282 on-base percentage. Girardi, in turn, tried six leadoff hitters and seven players in the two-hole.
But Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins have been top-of-the-order forces this month. Since June 1, Schwarber has seven homers and a .422 on-base percentage as the leadoff hitter; behind him, Hoskins is 23-for-69 (.333) with five homers and a .418 on-base percentage.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” hitting coach Kevin Long said. “We’re like, let’s have our two guys that grind out at-bats the most, that know the strike zone better than anybody else on our team, and let’s see what that does and see if it can spark our offense. Literally it has. They’re on base all the time.”
Long pointed to June 9 in Milwaukee. Facing reigning NL Cy Young winner Corbin Burnes, Schwarber saw 17 pitches in three at-bats, while Hoskins saw 20. The Phillies got Burnes out of the game after 113 pitches in 4⅓ innings. A day later, Schwarber and Hoskins saw a total of 22 pitches from Arizona ace Zac Gallen to run him out of the game after 66 pitches in 1⅔ innings.
Not coincidentally, the Phillies are averaging 6.0 runs per game in June. They averaged 4.5 runs through their previous 50 games.
“It sets the tone,” Long said. “Basically it says, ‘We’re going to grind you.’ Harper’s getting up there and [pitchers] are 13, 14, 15 pitches in, and Harp’s got a pretty good idea what’s coming and so does the rest of the team. It’s been really nice to have those two at the top of the order.”
In hindsight, Girardi should’ve stuck with Schwarber in the leadoff spot rather than bumping him down in the order after only eight games. Schwarber started slow last season, too, with the Nationals before moving to the top of the order in June and going on a home-run binge.
But patience is difficult to come by for a manager who feels pressure to win.
Girardi managed 273 games for the Phillies. They blew 51 saves, the most in baseball during that time. Girardi’s Phillies were like a punctured air mattress. They were habitually deflating.
The bullpen hasn’t been any firmer under Thomson. In the last 17 games, Phillies relievers have four blown saves. Thomson removed Corey Knebel from the closer role last week and is sussing out which relievers other than Seranthony Domínguez can be trusted in any situation with a late lead. It’s possible the answer won’t arrive until the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
But the Phillies have won lately in spite of their bullpen follies. When Knebel gave up a ninth-inning run June 5 against the Los Angeles Angels, Bryson Stott hit a three-run walk-off homer; when Didi Gregorius threw away the final out in the ninth inning Friday night in Washington, the Phillies scored twice in the 10th; when closer du jour Brad Hand blew a save Saturday night, Hoskins came up with a go-ahead pinch-hit single in the 10th.
“I don’t think we ever feel like we’re out of a game,” Hoskins said. “I just think we’re a more confident bunch in here.”
Any explanation for that enhanced confidence?
There’s that chicken-and-egg thing again.
“I think winning breeds that,” Hoskins said. “We’re finding ways to win games that we’re probably not supposed to. It’s what good teams do.”
Taking what the schedule gives
When Dave Dombrowski began to ponder letting Girardi go, he considered several factors, including the calendar.
“When I looked at the schedule,” he said, “OK, if we’re going to make a move, what time frame makes sense?”
From April 29 through June 1, the Phillies played 26 of 31 games against the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Atlanta Braves, and San Francisco Giants. They went 10-16 in those games and 12-19 overall during the stretch.
But the schedule softened considerably in June. The last 11 games have come against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, and woebegone Nationals. Before that, the Phillies caught the Angels and Brewers in the midst of free falls.
If ever the Phillies were going to run off a long winning streak, Dombrowski thought this may be the time. And a managerial change may serve as lighter fluid to help the Phillies catch fire.
“Obviously Joe’s not here because we didn’t win,” Schwarber said. “There’s that reality right in the middle of your face that, hey, we’ve got to do better, we’ve got to find a way to win games. You say it was [about the manager]. You don’t have to say it. I think it was just reality staring us in the face. It was on us to change that.
“I feel like we’ve been doing a really good job of not letting anything negative affect us. We’re coming in with a positive mindset every single day, and we’re having fun. That’s the main goal.”