One of the oddest stretches of baseball in Phillies history came to an end Sunday afternoon, and the best thing we can say is that at least it did not destroy the team’s chances of ending an eight-year playoff drought.
There was, in fact, renewed optimism about their season after Zack Wheeler delivered seven strong innings against his former team to help the Phillies complete a three-game sweep of the New York Mets with a 6-2 win at Citizens Bank Park.
Four days earlier, things looked grim after a young Baltimore Orioles squad that had lost 100-plus games each of the previous two seasons finished off a road sweep of the Phillies. The three straight losses had positioned them at the bottom of the NL East standings and it would be kind to say that the state of the bullpen was catastrophic.
Even after holding the Mets scoreless over the final two innings Sunday, marking just the third time this season that their relievers did not surrender a run, the bullpen remains a major concern. But the list of reasons to believe that the Phillies might just be good enough to emerge as one of the eight National League teams to reach the expanded COVID-19 playoffs is growing, too.
“I think our starting pitching has been really good,” manager Joe Girardi said after the Phillies improved to 8-9 and, amazingly, crept to within two games of the tied-for-first-place Braves and Marlins. “I think our offense, the fight in our offense, and the ability to come back, has been really good. And it seemed like we had some sense of finding where guys worked in the bullpen, which I’m really encouraged about.”
We’ll wait and see on the bullpen thing, and even as the good times rolled over the weekend, some illnesses and injuries mounted. Roman Quinn went on the injured list with COVID-19 symptoms that the Phillies hope are benign, and Jay Bruce (quad) and Jean Segura (hamstring) both left Sunday’s game with nagging injuries.
“You need everyone to contribute and everyone kind of did their job this weekend and that’s encouraging as well,” Girardi said.
The Phillies’ list of positives begins at the top of the rotation. Less than 24 hours after Aaron Nola blanked the Mets on three hits over seven innings, Wheeler held them to two runs on six hits over seven innings.
Thanks to the full week without games following the opening series against Miami, Nola and Wheeler have pitched eight of the Phillies’ first 17 games. They have combined for a 2.42 earned run average and the Phillies are 5-3 in their starts. If your aces pitch well, it takes some pressure off the rest of the rotation, but the quartet of Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin, Spencer Howard, and Vince Velasquez will have to pull their weight if the Phillies are to emerge as a playoff team.
As for the offense, it has been primarily fueled by the superstar duo of Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto through the first 17 games. Those two combined for five more hits and reached base six times again Sunday, but the long-struggling Rhys Hoskins also followed up his three-run double Saturday night with a first-inning RBI single to start the scoring Sunday.
Rookie Alec Bohm tied the game at 2-2 with an impressive at-bat that ended with an RBI double off Mets starter Rick Porcello in the sixth, but by far the most encouraging sign for the Phillies’ offense came in the next plate appearance. After replacing Bruce in the fifth inning, Andrew McCutchen stepped to the plate in the sixth and attacked a first-pitch slider from Porcello that he planted in the left-field seats for a two-run home run that gave the Phillies the lead for good.
“To say it felt great is an understatement,” McCutchen said.
It was McCutchen’s first home run of the season and his first in more than a calendar year. Despite a heavy reliance on their stars, the Phillies still were one of nine teams averaging more than five runs a game going into play Sunday. They scored six runs in each of their three games against the Mets.
If McCutchen can somehow resemble the player he was a year ago before a torn ACL prematurely ended his season and if Hoskins can somehow recapture the stroke he showed through the course of his first two seasons, the Phillies’ offense might shift from very good to great.
“We’re resilient,” McCutchen said. “We understand the team that we have, regardless of what we’ve done. We know the type of game we can play as a whole. That’s just knowing each other and having faith and trust in each other.”
Now, after playing 16 of their 17 games at home and after having an unwanted week off and after a bullpen meltdown of epic proportion, the Phillies are about to go on the road. They will play 10 games in 11 days in four cities, including a doubleheader against Toronto in Buffalo, N.Y., a place they have not played since 1885 when they were still known as the Quakers. Did you really think this season would ever get less weird?
“There’s a lot of firsts for all of us,” McCutchen said. “And for us, it’s just about keeping the main thing the main thing, and that’s playing the game of baseball.”