The Philadelphia Phillies have been through darker periods before. After all, they had a record-setting steak of 16 consecutive losing seasons on their way to becoming the first team in professional sports to lose 10,000 games.
However, the franchise undeniably went on a steady decline after 2011. And Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco are the two lone Phillies who truly know how long gone were the days of a heralded team that went to back-to-back World Series in 2008 and 2009.
Hernandez, who made his MLB debut on May 29, 2013, and Franco, who was a September 2014 call-up and one of the youngest position players to debut with the Phillies, are the only members of the current 25-man roster who have been with the team for at least five seasons.
They saw the “Fightin’ Phils” go from an MLB-best franchise-record 102 wins in 2011 to the worst record in the major leagues (63-99) in 2015.
“You know … we tried so hard,” Franco said, recalling that 99-loss season. “You prepare, you do all the work, and you see that all that preparation that you put in every single day does not give you the results you want. It’s so frustrating. It hurts you. There were even times that, when the game was over, you didn’t know what to do; didn’t know what to think.”
Said Hernandez: “It is no secret that to get to this point we went through a lot of difficulties. Right now we are winning, but we really know how hard it was to lose so much, especially those years that we were practically in last place. Being now so close to the top of the leaderboard is really fulfilling, especially for us.”
From 2012 to 2017 the Phillies were 437-545, and their .439 win percentage was the worst in the majors over that span. After going 81-81 in 2012, finishing third in the NL East, they didn’t win more than 73 games in any of their next five seasons, finishing fourth or fifth in the division each year.
But under the guidance of first-year manager Gabe Kapler, the 2018 Phillies are again playing meaningful games in August and find themselves surpassing expectations.
“It’s all about the way [Kapler] treats us as players, how he speaks to us, how he interacts with us. He has been such a positive influence,” Hernandez said. “He always talks to us about our role; always checks up on you and is focused on us getting what we need. He’s so caring; always looks for ways to help you to be better, that you don’t feel tired, that you feel good and get what you need. That motivates us to continue giving the best of ourselves for the team, but also for him. We know we have a manager who is always there for us.”
With Friday’s win over the New York Mets, the Phillies improved to 68-54 in Kapler’s first season, and are now just three wins shy of matching their win total for 2017. The surprising turnaround has Philadelphia just a half-game behind Atlanta for the NL East lead and at the top of the wild-card race.
“Nobody expected us to be in the position we are today. But when you are around winning people, people who like to work hard, who like to win, that spreads around the clubhouse,” Franco said. “[Carlos] Santana went to the World Series. [Jake] Arrieta won the World Series. And what you want is to feel that emotion of going to a postseason, to the World Series, all those things. When you are surrounded by people who give you positive vibes, it’s very nice. They have given us that vibe, that push, that joy we feel winning games and really, it’s a beautiful thing.”
Is this group capable of duplicating that franchise-best run of five straight postseason appearances from 2007 through 2011? Hernandez and Franco believe they have what it takes.
“We have taken the necessary steps to one day be like them. And it’s not just about this year, we have a young talented team that I hope will continue at the same pace we have now,” Hernandez said. “I know everyone has been very surprised; nobody expected much from us. And now we know how good it feels to win.”
Said Franco: “The year the Phillies won the World Series we had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Lee, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins … and right now … we feel we are on our way. If I don’t get things done, then it’s Hernandez or Herrera or Hoskins or Santana, or someone else. We are all in this together.
“This season has been the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me playing ball, because when you help your team, when you see your team winning, that you are close to first place, it transforms you.”
Watching the second game of Thursday’s doubleheader on SNY, a stomach-turning graphic came onscreen: since 2012, the Mets had gone 42-18 at Citizens Bank Park. Even considering how bad the Phils have been over most of that period, and that the Mets had a pennant winner and another playoff team in there, that’s one ugly number—the long-term analogue to the grotesquerie of that 24-4 throttling in the first game.
Then again, the Phillies didn’t have an ace for most of that time. They’ve got one now, as Aaron Nola reminded everyone again on Friday night. The all-star tossed seven scintillating innings, holding the Mets to three hits and a run while striking out 11 to lead the way in the Phils’ 4-2 win and notch his 14th win of the season. It was one more masterpiece in a season that’s seen the 25 year old reach rare heights:
How good has Aaron Nola been this season? Nola’s 2.24 ERA is the lowest by a Phillies SP through 25 starts since Chris Short in 1964 (a 1.97 ERA), according to Elias. Yes, even better than Halladay in his 2010 Cy Young season.
When Nola’s struggled this year, it’s generally been in the first inning. Not tonight, as he struck out the side to start the game, generating the first four of 21 swings and misses on the night. He barely had time to take a seat in the dugout before getting staked to a 3-0 lead against Mets mound monster Noah Syndergaard, who came into the game with a career 4-1 mark and 2.06 ERA in seven starts against the Phils. But tonight, Cesar Hernandez singled, Rhys Hoskins walked, and ex-Met Asdrubal Cabrera smacked the first pitch he saw for a double, scoring Hernandez. Nick Williams offered at the next pitch for a single to bring home Hoskins, and Cabrera scored on the following pitch when Carlos Santana hit into a double play.
Despite that early burst of aggression, the Phillies worked Thor all night. Though he only allowed one more run, on a Roman Quinn triple followed by a Jorge Alfaro single, he exited with two outs in the sixth having thrown 115 pitches. In the meantime, the Phils stole five bases, including Alfaro’s first two of the season, Maikel Franco’s first of the year, Santana’s second, and Hernandez’s team-high 16th. As a team, the Phils had stolen just 46 bags all year before tonight.
Nola mostly did the rest. He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth, when Jeff McNeil and Austin Jackson started the inning with back to back singles to put men on first and third with no outs. McNeil eventually scored on a Todd Frazier sac fly, but no further damage was done. Nola escaped more trouble in the fifth after starting the frame by hitting Jose Bautista and walking Kevin Plawecki. He went to a full count on Syndergaard before getting the strikeout, then recovered with a strikeout and groundout.
The Phillies’ usually reliable bullpen made things moderately interesting in the eighth, when Victor Arano surrendered a two-out run on a McNeil pop fly double and a Jackson single. But Adam Morgan came on to get Michael Comforto on a called third strike to end the inning, and Pat Neshek closed things out in the ninth to earn his third save of the year. With the Braves trailing by six runs late in their game, the Phils were in position to move back within a half-game of the NL East lead.
Dominguez picked up his 14th save of the year in Thursday’s nightcap against the Mets, recording the final two outs on a pair of strikeouts while allowing one hit.
Dominguez was called upon with one out in the ninth inning and the tying run on deck in a four-run game. He allowed that tying run come up to bat after giving up a single to Wilmer Flores but struck out Austin Jackson and Jose Bautista to close the game. It was a significant moment for the young reliever, who was able to shut the door after throwing 1.1 innings the day before despite struggling in similar situations for much of the year.
Quinn is back in the starting lineup Friday night against the Mets, playing center field just as he did in Game 2 of Thursday’s doubleheader.
He’s earned his way into more playing time by making an impact at the plate, in the field and on the bases. He’s the Phillies’ best defensive outfielder and best baserunner, and with how Odubel Herrera is trending right now, Quinn offers similar (if not more) offensive value.
Quinn was 3 for 6 in Thursday’s doubleheader with two steals and two runs scored. Herrera, meanwhile, has just one multi-hit game in his last 10. He’s gone 27 straight games without scoring twice.
Has Quinn supplanted Herrera for now?
“Openly, we don’t have jobs like that,” manager Gabe Kapler said Friday. “Guys come ready to play baseball every single day. Quinny’s gonna come ready to be deployed off the bench, play center field, play right field. We saw how dynamic he was last night. He earned and deserved the opportunity to go start in center field today.
“Each day lives independently of the last. We don’t have any research that indicates that because a guy performed well yesterday, he’s going to perform well today. But we also have to be responsive to and not be tone-deaf to how people are feeling about how much energy a guy like Roman Quinn brings to the field.
“And so being responsive to that and saying yeah, I feel like we get a big boost when he’s in the lineup. Or even when we send him out to pinch-run, everybody kind of moves a little bit closer to the rail to watch what unfolds. I want to be responsive to that and that’s why I say he’s earned the right to go out there and start in center field tonight for us.”
Herrera is down to .269/.323/.445 on the season. Since June 25, a span of 40 starts, Herrera has hit .207 with a .261 OBP. He’s struck out nearly once a game during that period and walked once every four games. Many of his plate appearances have ended weakly, with a swing at a pitch out of the strike zone or a rollover to the right side.
When Herrera is going cold, many in this city get ready to give up on him. But he does have stretches of immense value, such as his first 73 games of the season when he hit .305 with an .863 OPS.
The issue is that his slumps tend to be prolonged, and during them, Herrera becomes a near-zero at the plate because he isn’t making up for the lack of hits by working counts and taking walks.
During these down periods, Quinn becomes a necessary and useful insurance policy. It’s one of several reasons his health is so vital to the Phillies, especially with 41 remaining regular-season games that basically double as playoff games.
“He’s an awesome weapon for us,” Kapler said. “We’re lucky to have him.”
If you are going to take a 20-run beating, it’s best to do so in the first game of a doubleheader. And not one of those separate admission doubleheaders, an old-fashioned doubleheader in which the second game starts 30 minutes after the first one.
That way there’s no time to sit around and stew in the juices from the painful defeat.
Lace ‘em right back up. Get back out there and start swinging again.
Rhys Hoskins made a costly error – one of four that the sloppy Phillies made – in the Mets’ 10-run fifth inning in the opener. But Hoskins came back in the nightcap and rescued the Phillies and Zach Eflin from an early two-run deficit with a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning and the Phillies never trailed again.
“Rhys’ homer was huge,” said Eflin, who delivered 6 2/3 innings of four-run ball for his ninth win. “As a pitcher, you always want to pitch with the lead and he got it for us.”
Hoskins has homered in three of the last four games. He has 25 on the season.
“Rhys set the tone with that big three-run home run, getting us right back in it and I think it speaks to the character of our club,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We’re not down for long. We can take it on the chin. We can take a punch and we always get up and come out swinging. We believe in each other and I think that was on display today.”
The victory capped a crazy day of baseball. Even after a 20-run loss in the opener, the Phillies were able to pick up ground in both the NL East and NL wild-card races. They trail Atlanta by 1½ game in the division and lead the wild card race by 1½.
“Obviously, you never want to lose like we did (in the first game) but it happens,” Hoskins said. “We get to wake up tomorrow closer than we were today – that’s a good day.”
There were no chats, meetings, speeches or reprimands in the brief time between games.
“Nothing,” Kapler said. “These guys are professionals. They know how to prepare for the next game. They know how to wash it off. You have to have a short memory. We had an ugly first game, there’s no denying that. It was one that we wanted to forget quickly and one way to do that is to come out and win the next game. That’s just what we did.”
Hoskins said there was no need to say anything between games.
“We all saw what happened,” he said. “You just flush and move on to the next one. We know what to do to get back on the horse and win a ballgame.”
Having little time to wallow in the ugly loss helped.
“Yeah,” Hoskins said. “There’s a lot less time to think about it.”
Kapler used Quinn and Kingery for three innings of relief – they combined to allow nine runs as the game deteriorated into a comedy act – in the first game because it was a blowout and he wanted to save his bullpen. He was able to use Luis Garcia, Victor Arano and Seranthony Dominguez for big outs late in the second game – not that any one of those guys would have profiled to pitch in the first-game blowout.
“You saw it,” Hoskins said. “We don’t use guys in the first game. We used position players. Even though it’s pretty ugly, especially in the seventh inning, we have a stronger chance to win the second game, especially with the bullpen we have. You trust Gabe. It’s worked. There’s not really much else to say. We don’t see any madness in his method.”
Kingery started the second game at shortstop and ignited a three-run second inning with a solo homer. That broke an 0-for-21 drought for the rookie.
“I joked with him that I wish I knew all we had to do was put him on the mound for him to hit a homer,” Hoskins said. “A little extra adrenaline. Different adrenaline. It was good to see. He’s been grinding with the rest of us. His swing is right there. For him to see results was great.”
Kingery became the first player since Rocky Colavito of the 1968 Yankees to pitch in Game 1 of a doubleheader and homer in the second game (see video).
Justin Bour, acquired last week from Miami, got his first start with his new club. He played first base and batted second.
Bour got the start over Carlos Santana, who has been a polarizing player in his first year of a three-year, $60 million contract.
Santana’s supporters, which include the front office and manager Gabe Kapler, love the way he works counts and gets on base. His on-base percentage is .349 and his 66 RBIs are second-most on the club.
Santana’s detractors see his .214 batting average and want more.
Both sides have a point.
Don’t get used to seeing Bour at first base. Kapler reiterated before the game that the Phils acquired Bour to be a difference-making bat off the bench. Kapler wants to get Bour an occasional start – like Wednesday night – to keep him sharp for pinch-hitting assignments.
“Santana’s going to play every day,” Kapler said. “Santana’s going to play regularly.”
But what if Bour’s bat gets hotter than a habanero?
“Bour is going to be a weapon off the bench for us,” Kapler said. “Look, we can’t see the future in its entirety. Santana’s going to play every day. Right now, Bour is a weapon off the bench for us. He can start for us occasionally.”
Ramos, acquired at the trade deadline, was activated from the disabled list, started behind the plate and batted sixth. To make room for him on the roster, the Phillies sent catcher Andrew Knapp to Triple A.
Zach Eflin and Ranger Suarez will be the starters in Thursday’s doubleheader against the Mets. The Phils had not announced the order in which they would pitch.
Suarez will be promoted from Triple A for the start. The Phillies will have to clear a roster spot for him.
Eflin is technically on the Triple A roster after being optioned on Sunday. He will be added to the roster as the 26th man. Teams are allowed to have an extra player for a doubleheader.
Eflin will go back to Triple A on Friday and return after his 10-day option assignment is complete early next week. He will not miss a big-league start.
Sending Eflin to the minors was a controversial move as it cost him about $20,000 in pay and big-league service time. The Phillies sent Eflin out because they wanted to carry an extra man and the 26th roster spot and a day off on Monday allowed them to assign Eflin to the minors without him missing a turn in the big-league rotation.
Eflin was not happy with the move, but he said he understood it. He and Kapler had breakfast together in Philadelphia earlier in the week and talked out the situation.
“It’s been different being away from the team, but at the end of the day we all understand the move,” Eflin said. “It just wasn’t too easy to swallow. The only thing you can do is be positive and move forward and use it as motivation.
“I think what everyone is focused on is me losing service time or losing money, but the only thing I’ve been worried about the whole time is being away from my teammates and losing those eight days of relationships in the middle of a pennant race. That’s what affected me the most. I could not care less about the money I missed or the days I missed. It’s more about the relationships and the brothers you have in this clubhouse that I was missing out on.”