The Philadelphia Phillies were, among many evaluators earlier this year, an odds-on potential NL East champion, if not more. “Things” have proved difficult.
Roughly a week and a half ago it was observed that between Sept. 4 and 11 last year, the Philadelphia Phillies fell from 3½ games off the second Wild Card slot to 6½ games from that playoff berth. This season the week leading into play Sept. 11 would end with the second of four games the Fightin’s had scheduled against the Atlanta Braves, who are winning the NL East moving away from the pack.
Before play Sept. 4, Philadelphia had been a full game better than the 2018 version of the squad. Their game Sept. 10, however, was also the fifth of 20 games in a row against teams with winning records. The Phillies load to haul to get even the second Wild Card was baked into the schedule.
Moreover, they hadn’t helped themselves much the night before against Atlanta. Philly ace Aaron Nola didn’t pitch well, particularly, giving up four earned runs in six innings without locating his pitches even as well as he did in his last game, when he gave up five earned runs in only five innings.
Without Nola, though, the Phillies would be two games under .500 instead of five over. So, what did their very expensive offense do against Braves starter Mark Foltynewicz (who had lowered his ERA to a mediocre 5.00 and booked the win)?
No much, folks. Not much.
They had no runners in scoring position who hadn’t hit the ball out of the park (Corey Dickerson and Cesar Hernandez), and they lost 7-2. The loss put the Phillies behind two teams and the Chicago Cubs, who had been holding onto the second Wild Card for a fair number of days.
The following night they would send soft-tossing Jason Vargas out against Atlanta’s Max Fried, 11 years his junior and the owner of 16 wins already, and a lineup featuring three 30-homer bombers.
One swing of the bat can mean so much in a playoff race.
Look what happened Tuesday night in Miami.
Look what happened in Philadelphia.
Down in Miami, the Milwaukee Brewers, who are locked in the same National League wild-card race as the Phillies, lost their best player, reigning league MVP Christian Yelich, for the remainder of the season when he suffered a broken right kneecap on a foul ball in the first inning.
Yelich entered the night leading the league in slugging (.672) and OPS (1.102). The Brewers won their game in Miami, but can they survive the rest of the way without Yelich? His injury could change the complexion of the wild-card race as it nears the wire.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Phillies were 6-5 winners over the Atlanta Braves. The Phils won it on the strength of five home runs and some nifty bullpen work turned in by five relievers, three of them who’d been released by their old clubs over the last six weeks. In all, the ‘pen pitched six innings and allowed just one run after Jason Vargas had trouble throwing strikes and exited after three innings.
“That’s a very difficult lineup to navigate through six innings and our bullpen did a tremendous job,” manager Gabe Kapler.
The Braves are a power plant. They have 230 homers, second-most in the NL and six shy of a team record.
The Phillies are not a power plant. They entered the night ranked 11th in the NL with 186 homers. But the power came on in this one and the win left the Phils with a chance to close to within two games of the second NL wild-card spot, depending on the outcome of the Cubs-Padres game in San Diego. Oh, by the way, the Cubs have also endured a recent injury to a star player as Javier Baez went down with a broken thumb last week. The Phils have 18 games left and are in the thick of the race with the Cubs, Brewers and Diamondbacks.
The Phillies came out with four runs — on three homers — in the first inning. J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper and Corey Dickerson all went deep against Max Fried.
Vargas gave up the lead in the third inning, but the Phillies got it back — for good — on one swing of the bat, one swing of the bat that will make it onto the team’s end-of-season highlight video.
With two outs and the game tied, 4-4, in the bottom of the third, Scott Kingery launched a long fly ball to center. The ball cleared the wall, but Braves centerfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., leaped and was able to get the ball into the pocket of his glove. As Acuna Jr., brought the ball back over the fence, he lost control of it and it hit the ground. No catch. No home-run robbery. With the play in front of him, Kingery kept motoring and got his home run inside-the-park style.
If Kingery hadn’t run hard out of the box, he might not have made it home. As it was, he had to dive into home plate.
“The hustle he showed,” Kapler said. “We talked since spring training how important sharp turns around the bases were and how important it is to hustle out of the batter’s box on any ball. And we weren’t sure if it was a home run. Kingery wasn’t sure if it was a home run. Acuna wasn’t sure if it was a home run. And he never stopped running. And that’s why he walked away with an inside-the-park home run, one of the more exciting plays we’ve seen all year.”
The 360-foot sprint left Kingery winded, but elated.
“I wasn’t really sure what the rules were once the ball came out of his glove, so I just kept running and thankfully Dusty (Wathan, the third base coach) sent me home,” Kingery said. “I just tried to run even faster when I saw him sending me. For the next full inning I was trying to catch my breath out there.”
Eventually, the Phillies’ bullpen gave up a run when Jared Hughes allowed a homer in the eighth, but by that time the Phils had a two-run lead thanks to Dickerson’s second home of the game. Both of his homers came against left-handers.
General manager Matt Klentak has taken plenty of heat for not making more significant additions at the trade deadline, but Dickerson has been a pretty good one as evidenced by his eight homers and 34 RBIs in 33 games.
“One of the things we’re noticing is that left or right, he’s probably got to be in the lineup right now,” Kapler said of Dickerson. “And if a left-handed reliever comes into the game, we almost feel comfortable and confident in Corey. I know the Pirates were using him in a platoon role. But certainly he looks dangerous against left-handers and right-handers and perhaps has really made a change for the better in his career.”
In addition to the five homers and six innings of one-run ball from the bullpen, the Phils got three huge defensive plays from Kingery, Realmuto and Harper.
Eighteen games left and this imperfect team is still in this imperfect wild-card race.
Zach Eflin faces Dallas Keuchel on Wednesday night.
Will one swing of the bat make a difference again?