A simple question: What do you make of this Phillies team as the calendar nears August?
Is their true DNA that of the team which won a statement series against the Los Angeles Dodgers last week? Are they the team that surged into first-place in the National League East in spite of a limited offense that somehow does just enough to help choke out every last bit of this roster’s potential? Or do you believe their success, though pleasant and worthy of applause, is merely a mirage? Is this team’s true essence more in line with the listless and uninspiring brand of baseball they played in Cincinnati over a disturbing four-game series this past weekend?
A second question: Do those two options sound all that different? Truthfully, the team that won its third-straight game after a franchise record-tying seven home run outburst on Thursday night is also very much the same team that produced only six runs and struck out 31 times while dropping three-straight over the weekend. Really, the offense in wins looks much the way it does in losses. They will see a ton of pitches. They will walk a ton. They will strike out a ton. Sometimes they will get a key hit, sometimes they won’t. The one true variable in their prognosis over the season’s final 57 games remains what it has been all along. The starting pitching propelled the Phillies into first-place. It has kept them there. And if they can ultimately outlast the suddenly struggling Braves and a Nationals team that looks utterly disinterested in playing postseason baseball, it will be the starting rotation that drags this team across the finish line.
And therein lies the concern.
While I’m not ready to smash the panic button over a flawed offense continuing to show its deficiencies, I am a bit concerned about the regression shown by the starting pitching the first two times through the rotation post All-Star break.
Here’s a look:
I know we’re talking about 10 games here, and I’m in no way definitively suggesting that this downward tick in production will continue. In fact, Vince Velasquez has been flat-out impressive, and I’m still high on Nick Pivetta, who I wrote about after what was the most typical of Nick Pivetta starts on Friday night. But if this group’s performance fails to revert closer to what it was over the season’s first 97 games, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Phillies win the division. If that seems like an unfair amount of pressure to put on the rotation, that’s because it absolutely is. But it is also the current reality of the situation after Matt Klentak’s front office declined to go all-in on a legitimate game-changing talent in what has been a pricey trade market and it’s hard to see anything that can be done in the next two days that will alter this current reality. As it stands, the only definitive conclusion we can make about this team over next two months is that we should expect more of the turbulence we saw this past week from a flawed, but promising team down the stretch. Prepare to remain uncomfortable.