The Phillies have been a lot of things so far this season and, yes, irritating tops the list. Lousy, lucky, and unlucky make the cut, too.
Let’s start with the irritating depiction. Flash back to their previous homestand that ended with a four-game sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers and left us believing that maybe, just maybe, this year was going to be different for the team that is pushing a decade without a playoff appearance.
When they won the next night in Atlanta behind another terrific start from Zach Eflin, the Phillies were three games above .500 and in first place. It looked like they were going to be the first team to take off in the surprisingly lackluster National League East.
Instead, they tortured us with a stretch of nails-across-the-chalkboard baseball, going 4-9 and allowing the banged up New York Mets to pass them in the standings while also failing to take advantage of a terrible start by the three-time defending division champion Atlanta Braves.
Thanks to the new ace in town, the Phillies at least offered a temporary reprieve Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, salvaging the finale of their three-game series with the Boston Red Sox. Zack Wheeler carried the Phillies through 7 1/3 innings and matched his career high of 12 strikeouts in a 6-2 win that included a three-run homer from Brad Miller in the first inning and a three-hit performance from Odúbel Herrera.
Manager Joe Girardi seemed mildly amused when asked to describe his team’s performance through 47 games.
“It has been really up and down is what it has been,” he said. “It has been everything in a sense. At times, we haven’t hit. At times, we haven’t played defense. At times, we haven’t pitched. It has been inconsistent for reasons we continue to work on. If we’re going to want to be in this thing come September, we need to become more consistent.”
During the debilitating stretch before Wheeler’s three-hit, one-run gem Sunday, the Phillies did all sorts of things that could get under a manager’s skin.
In the 13 games before Sunday, they made 13 errors and allowed nine unearned runs. Even in victory Sunday, they struggled to finish the game when a bad throw by Ronald Torreyes negated what should have been a game-ending double play and a dropped foul pop by third baseman Alec Bohm extended the game a few more pitches.
The rotation ERA during the previous 13 games before Sunday was 4.92, a very inflated number for a team that believes it has one of the better groups of starting pitchers in the game. Take Wheeler’s two starts out of the equation and the rest of the rotation had a 5.82 ERA in the other 11 games. That’s a huge concern because Aaron Nola is struggling to find the form that has made him one of baseball’s best pitchers since 2017. If that doesn’t change, all the other team’s problems probably won’t matter much.
The hitters deserve their fair share of the blame for the recent rotten stretch. The Phillies averaged 3.7 runs per game during their 4-9 stretch before Sunday and 2.4 runs during the first five games of the homestand. The 2-4 homestand was their first losing one since their season-opening series against Miami last year.
“We’ve had a lot of people in and out of the lineup, but I’m not going to make excuses,” Girardi said. “Other people have to step up. But we’ve had a busy schedule as well, but that’s not an excuse either. That’s the baseball life. We just haven’t played well enough to be on top of our division.”
They haven’t played well enough to be tied for second and only 1 ½ games out of first either, but that’s where they stood in the jumbled NL East after Sunday’s game. No team in the division has taken off and every team can point to reasons why.
Playing without catcher J.T. Realmuto and shortstop Didi Gregorius is not helping the Phillies’ cause and it’s obvious that the slumping Bryce Harper, who was given Sunday off, is not 100%. But if you’re searching for sympathy from the first-place Mets, you’re not going to find it.
The Mets have been in first for all but six days this month despite an injury list that includes four starting position players (Pete Alonso, Kevin Pillar, Michael Conforto, and Jeff McNeil) and two members of their season-opening rotation (Jacob deGrom and Taijuan Walker).
“We’re fortunate that we don’t have a team that is 10 to 12 games over .500 in front of us,” Girardi said. “The opportunity is there for us moving forward.”
Every manager in the NL East was probably saying the same thing after the eighth Sunday of the 2021 season was complete.