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Joe Girardi did a great job with the Phillies, all things considered: ‘A miracle,’ one coach says | Marcus Hayes

If you really think about it, the flawed, wacky, 2021 Phillies didn’t underachieve. Thanks to Joe Girardi, they overachieved. Significantly.

Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi worked wonders with a wacky 2021 Phillies team
Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi worked wonders with a wacky 2021 Phillies teamRead moreGene J. Puskar / AP

If you’ve watched the 88-win Braves charge to the National League pennant and go blow-for-blow with the Astros in the World Series, you might be thinking, “That could have been the Phillies.”

After all, the Phils were alone in first place in the National League East as late as Aug. 14, and, after a five-game winning streak, they stood 1½ games out of first with seven to play, including three at Atlanta.

You might even be thinking, “That could have been the Phillies if Joe Girardi had done a better job.”

Heck, Joe Girardi thinks that: “I feel like I failed,” he said after the Braves clinched the East on Sept. 30.

He’s wrong. And if you think that Girardi was the problem, and that the Phillies could be where the Braves are today, well, you’re wrong, too.

First, the Phillies weren’t going to win a postseason series with their chancy starters, their blundering bullpen, and their sketchy lineup. Second, Girardi did an excellent job just getting them in position for the final week of the season.

Was he perfect? No. His team payed poorer defense than it should have, ran the bases senselessly, and struck out way too much, all areas in which a manager can modulate performance. He left Aaron Nola in the game too long once, made a mistake with a lineup card, and seemed unsure of how to use his formless bullpen.

But considering the obstacles he faced -- a slumping No. 1 starter and an injured No. 3, half of his lineup either hurt or just lousy, and a historically inept bullpen -- was Girardi pretty darned good?

Yes, according to one coach, who happens to be coaching in the World Series.

“It’s a miracle they didn’t lose 90 games.”

Glass: Half empty

The Phillies finished 82-80, their first winning record in a decade. That’s something, even if it seems like meager return on the fifth-highest payroll in baseball.

Payroll doesn’t always return a winner: San Diego was third in payroll but won just 79 games, while San Francisco (16th) and Tampa (23rd) led their leagues in wins. If you want to say Giants manager Gabe Kapler and Rays manager Kevin Cash outperformed Girardi, fine, but recognize that their front offices far outperformed the Phillies’ 11-year dumpster fire. Bad picks, worse player development, and specious free-agent additions left Girardi defenseless.

Let’s start at the top.

Opening day starter Aaron Nola’s ERA jumped from 3.23 over the previous four seasons to 4.63 in 2021, which was the Year of the Pitcher. Girardi can’t be expected to make Nola effective with two strikes. He was the Phillies’ single biggest disappointment, but he wasn’t the only disappointment.

» READ MORE: Aaron Nola underachieved more than anyone on the Phillies, who wasted Bryce Harper’s MVP run | Marcus Hayes

Leadoff hitter and leftfielder Andrew McCutchen signed a three-year, $50 million deal in 2018, when he had a career .287 average. He hit .237 over those three seasons with the Phillies, and just .222 in 2021. Girardi can’t be expected to resurrect aged veterans.

Second-year third baseman Alec Bohm again proved the value of triple-A experience. The COVID-19 pandemic robbed him of that in 2020, and, despite a flashy two months in the majors last year, his lack of seasoning overwhelmed him by late August and, with a .342 slugging percentage and 17 errors, he was sent to the minors. Girardi can’t be expected to teach kids how to catch.

Six different players tried to fill the center field position. It eventually fell, sort of, to Odubel Herrera -- whom Girardi reintegrated to the clubhouse after Hererra’s 2019 suspension and 2020 exclusion, all related to a domestic violence incident in 2019.

Veteran shortstop Didi Gregorius’ .640 OPS was 10th-worst among players with at least as many as his 368 at-bats, but at least he had a chronic elbow injury.

Left field, third base, shortstop, center field: that’s half of the lineup. The Phillies survived major problems with half of the pitching staff, too.

Zach Eflin’s knee injury and COVID-19 infection cost Girardi his No. 3 starter for the last one-third of the season. He didn’t have a No. 4 starter until Phillies president Dave Dombrowski traded for Kyle Gibson at the deadline, which moved Ranger Suarez into the No. 3 slot. Girardi didn’t have a competent No. 5 starter all season and had to use his bullpen to fill that role as the year came to a close.

Amid all of these problems it was the Phillies’ patchwork bullpen that got the most attention, mainly because its shortcomings recurred about twice a week, as it tied a major-league record with 34 blown saves.

Things got slightly better when Ian Kennedy arrived at the deadline, but he blew three of 13 himself. Girardi didn’t make every proper bullpen decision, but he eventually figured out the right roles for Hector Neris, a natural setup man; for erratic power arm Jose Alvarado; and for Suarez, who was the closer before Kennedy arrived and pushed him into the rotation, where Suarez was a revelation.

Glass: Half full

It’s a lot easier to credit Girardi with the team’s stronger performances than it is to blame him for poor showings.

Bryce Harper, the $330 million right fielder, was always a temperamental type, but he never played harder, and he never played better, and he should win his second National League MVP award; he won the Players’ Choice award as the NL’s best player Thursday.

Zack Wheeler won 14 games, led the majors with 213⅓ innings, led the NL with 213 strikeouts, and finished fifth in the NL with a 2.78 ERA, all career bests in the second year of his five-year, $118 million deal.

Suarez, a 26-year-old lefthander, put up a 1.12 ERA in 27 relief appearances, a 1.51 ERA in 12 starts, and didn’t allow a run in his last two appearances, including a nine-inning shutout in his penultimate start that kept the Phillies in the playoff hunt.

Glass: Cracked

The Phillies got nothing from top prospects Bohm, Mickey Moniak, Scott Kingery, and Spencer Howard -- players on whom Girardi, who arrived for the 2020 season, has had minimal impact.

And then there was the COVID issue.

More than half of the Phillies clubhouse was unvaccinated for most of the season and the team didn’t reach the 85% mark until Sept. 15, which finally allowed them to ease COVID restrictions around which Girardi had to manage all season.

» READ MORE: Sources: Almost half of the Phillies roster is unvaccinated for COVID-19 | Marcus Hayes

Gregorius blamed his injury on his COVID vaccination, as did reliever Brandon Kintzler, whom the Phillies released in August. Doctors refuted those claims, which, of course, were dumb, but Girardi had to deal with them anyway.

Still, he kept his team in the race for 158 games. Dombrowski didn’t hire Girardi, but he’s satisfied with the job he did.

“He did a good job for us,” Dombrowski said after the season ended. “I think he’s a good leader of our club.”

He’s right. If you really think about it, the flawed, wacky, 2021 Phillies didn’t underachieve. They overachieved. Significantly.

Thanks, in large part, to Joe Girardi.