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Phillies have shown they have ‘fight,’ which will be tested again during final homestand

This will be the Phillies' biggest challenge of the season, a chance to rise to the moment like they have done under Rob Thomson.

The Phillies have avoided losing streaks longer than four games under interim manager Rob Thomson.
The Phillies have avoided losing streaks longer than four games under interim manager Rob Thomson.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

ATLANTA — Since Rob Thomson took over as Phillies interim manager in early June, his team has shown an ability to bounce back from even the most soul-crushing losses. Going into their final series before the All-Star break, the Phillies had lost four straight. Then they went to Miami, a place that has given them trouble in the past, and fans expected the worst. But the Phillies swept the Marlins on the road for the time since 2010. Thomson said that three-game sweep set the tone for the rest of the season.

After the All-Star break, the Phillies were swept by the sub-.500 Chicago Cubs at home, but again, they shook off those losses quickly by taking two of three from Atlanta in the next series. They have yet to lose more than four straight under Thomson.

» READ MORE: Even after four straight losses, Phillies still likely to make playoffs

They are in a familiar spot going into their final homestand of the season, which begins Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays. They have a four-game losing streak, including a three-game sweep in Atlanta. The cushion they had over the Padres in the National League wild-card race has vanished; San Diego has a half-game lead on the Phillies for the second spot. The Phillies had a two-game lead over Brewers for the third and final spot going into Milwaukee’s home game Monday against the Mets.

It’s not an ideal time to start a skid. The Phillies’ magic number going into Monday was 14 with 16 games left to play. And these are not games against teams below .500. Starting Tuesday, they’ll play a two-game home series against the 83-64 Blue Jays and a four-game set against the 91-55 Braves. From there, it gets a little easier (at least on paper), with road series against the Cubs, Washington Nationals, and Houston Astros, who have clinched a playoff spot already and will have less reason to play their starters.

In need of clutch hits

The cause for this most recent skid is simple. The Phillies are working their at-bats, but the hits aren’t falling, and they’re having trouble with runners in scoring position. They lead MLB with a .274 batting average with runners in scoring position, but they went 2-for-21 against the Braves over the weekend.

“We didn’t come up with the big hit today,” Kyle Schwarber said after a 5-2 loss to the Braves on Sunday. “It’s frustrating for myself that I came up there with runners in scoring position. I had a good pitch to hit and popped it up. Those are the little things that are going to win or lose ballgames. Trust me, it’s not going to happen all the time. You’re not always going to get the big hit. When you’re in these situations, those are the situations we look for. We want to be in those situations.

“No one is shying away from when we have guys on base. Everyone has a good approach and a good plan. Sometimes it’s just round ball, round bat. We can’t worry about, ‘Man it would have been a big hit.’ Right? Because, if we do, it just creates things in the back of the head versus when you’re up there the next time we see success.”

» READ MORE: With a healthy Wheeler and Domínguez, Phillies would be in better shape than in 2007

Schwarber has batted leadoff in 107 games this season, and he has told Thomson he feels comfortable hitting there, but, like many of his teammates, he has hit a rough patch. He is batting .192/.323/.423 over his last seven games despite showing flashes of his power.

Of course, Schwarber isn’t the only one who is struggling — Bryce Harper is still trying to get his timing down since coming off the 60-day injured list, slashing .222/.341/.375 with two home runs and 8 RBIs — but it doesn’t help to have a dearth of production at the top of the lineup. For now, the Phillies aren’t considering moving Schwarber down.

There is still no timeline for Nick Castellanos’ return. He took some dry swings (no tee, no ball) on Saturday and the next step will be hitting off a tee. He has been on the injured list since Sept. 4 with a strained oblique muscle in his right side.

If there is a positive to be gleaned from the weekend, it is the Phillies’ starting pitching. Bailey Falter sparkled on Sunday, allowing only four hits and one run over 4⅔ innings, despite having to give up the ball earlier than he wanted. Ranger Suárez gave the Phillies his best start in the last few weeks Friday, pitching six innings and allowing two hits and one earned run.

Wheeler’s return

On top of that, the Phillies will get their ace back on Wednesday. Zack Wheeler has missed five starts since he was placed on the injured list on Aug. 25 with right forearm tendinitis. A few days before his injury was announced, he said he was feeling like his 2021 self. There’s no guarantee the Phillies will get that version of Wheeler when he takes the mound on Wednesday. But even if they get a modicum of that caliber of pitching, it will be helpful.

“I think it’s huge, I really do,” Thomson said of Wheeler’s return. “He’s been one of our top guys ever since he’s been here. It’s such a confidence builder for the entire club when he’s on this club. I think it’s huge. Bailey Falter has won all games he’s started in Wheeler’s absence, so he’s done a great job, too. But just having Wheeler there, it feels good.”

Wheeler will start slowly. He’ll work as an opener on Wednesday against the Blue Jays, with Noah Syndergaard piggybacking behind him for the next two starts, and will be held to a pitch count that Thomson wasn’t willing to divulge. From there, the Phillis will increase his workload by 15 pitches each outing. Wheeler said he’d like to be at around 90 pitches by the playoffs.

Earning a spot in the playoffs would mean a lot to the club in general, but also to Wheeler, who has never pitched in — or been to — a playoff game in his eight-year career.

“I just want to make it to the playoffs,” Wheeler said on Friday. “That’s the biggest thing. I’ve never been, so whoever starts [Game 1], I could really care less. Anybody is a good option.”

» READ MORE: The Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto is dominating the bases unlike any other player in baseball

To get there, the Phillies will have to start hitting, but Wheeler’s return could even have a positive impact on that. There is a comfort in knowing that if you get a lead, it will be protected.

“There’s definitely fight in this group,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said in late July. “And I think there’s a little extra confidence in the dugout because we know how well the guys in the bullpen are throwing the ball. That if we can keep it close, they’re going to keep it close. If we can take the lead, we’ve got a chance to win the game.”

The bullpen isn’t as dominant as it was in late July, but Hoskins’ logic should also apply to Wheeler’s return. This homestand will present the Phillies with their biggest test of the season, a chance to see if they can step up to the moment, like they did after those two losing streaks around the All-Star break. Hoskins says they have fight, but just how much fight do they have? We’ll soon find out.