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We’ve spent plenty of time over the past few weeks picking apart the Phillies’ flaws. It’s been easy to do during a six-week stretch in which they have faded from one of the National League’s best teams to a fringe playoff contender. Their problems – a lack of rotation depth, bullpen injuries, offensive inconsistency – seem to trade places as the most devastating flaw on a nightly basis, but each of them leads us back to the same conclusion, which is that the Phillies have to do something, perhaps a trade – or three – to save their season.
Sound familiar? It should.
Plenty of Phillies coverage lately has focused on the team’s needs, possible trade targets, and the potential roadblocks that exist, and rightfully so, but the truth is that nobody – including the team’s decision-makers – knows how the market will develop in the coming weeks. So rather than speculate about guys who aren’t here right now, let’s go about this in a different way by examining how those who are here can improve, and I don’t mean in a numerical sense. This isn’t going to be a data-driven analysis on how Bryce Harper’s exit velocity should yield a higher slugging percentage in the second half, though that’s true. Instead, I want to look at the human element of what’s at play here.
This team has no juice right now. It’s totally flaccid, but it wasn’t always this way. Just go back to Opening Day when Rhys Hoskins stepped to the plate after the Braves intentionally walked Harper in the seventh inning of a 6-3 game.
Walking Harper to get to me? Cool, no problem. Watch this.
The Braves intentionally walked Bryce Harper to pitch to Rhys Hoskins.
He made them pay big time. 👊pic.twitter.com/3HZoaUaZ04
— Sporting News MLB (@sn_mlb) March 28, 2019
Know what’s good? Grand slams. Know what’s even better? “F*** you” grand slams that come after intentional walks. This is the type of shit teams feed off of.
Listen to that crowd. Look at the energy, the celebrations, the confidence. Where has it gone? There seems to be no buzz around the Phillies right now. Sure, some of that has to do with the problems already outlined. I get it. It’s difficult to overcome mediocre starting pitching or blown leads – sometimes both – but too often it feels like the Phillies are slogging their way through games without the energy and fight we saw earlier in the season. At least when they aren’t playing the Mets.
Where is the intensity, brashness, and confidence the Phillies played with through 55 games during a promising 33-22 start?
When the second half of the season opens tonight against the red-hot Nationals, a team that has won 28 of its last 39 games and has either led or been tied in the seventh inning or later in 19 straight games, the Phillies have an opportunity.
After a second half last season in which they went only 27-40, and a first half this season which has left many feeling underwhelmed, the Phillies have an opportunity to eliminate the doubts of many and silence their critics.
Individually, Harper has a chance to elevate his game and make the seismic impact most thought he would back in March. Hoskins, the Phillies’ de facto leader, has an opportunity to put the team on his back and become a star. Oft-criticized starting pitchers Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez have one final opportunity to prove they have what it takes to stick in this rotation. Gabe Kapler, who has to be growing tired of hearing about his job security, has to find a way to harness the negativity and doubts about both himself and his team, while using the negativity to fuel it. He must not only navigate the roster’s weaknesses and press the correct tactical buttons, but he must find a way to stoke up the emotional flames we saw from the Phillies earlier this season.
The numbers are there in bold, and they are not pretty. Since June 1, Phillies starters have produced a 5.11 ERA, while the bullpen has a 6.22 ERA. The offense is in the bottom-half of baseball in both slugging percentage and OPS. Phillies pinch-hitters are batting only .174 this season – 51 points below the National League average. Improving on these numbers – through either internal improvement or outside reinforcements – will be critical, but it’s only part of the equation, and that’s where the the human element of this comes into play.
After a starting pitcher blows a 3-2 lead in the 5th – which he will – or a reliever coughs up a 4-3 lead in the seventh – which he will – the offense will need to fire back. Alternatively, on nights when the bats go quiet – which they will – someone on that pitching staff has to take it personally and say, “F*** it. I’ve got it tonight. Let’s go.” That’s how this is going to have to be for the Phillies.
From top to bottom, the opportunity for this organization to reverse course and change the narrative is there. John Middleton has an opportunity, the front office has an opportunity, Kapler has an opportunity, and the players have an opportunity. We’re going to find out if they can seize it, starting tonight.