The Philadelphia Phillies had lost five of their previous six games and ten of the prior 15. In second place and just 1.5 games off the NL East Division lead on September 8, the club had dropped to third place and 4.5 out entering Friday’s doubleheader with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Phillies woke up on Friday morning with a losing record for the first time since August 30.
Losses on the scoreboard weren’t the only problem. Players were also being lost to injury on a seemingly nightly basis over that entire period. Scott Kingery, Roman Quinn, Jay Bruce, Rhys Hoskins, Jake Arrieta, Zack Wheeler, and J.T. Realmuto were all lost at one point. Hoskins and Arrieta, the starting first baseman and a starting pitcher, are likely done for the season.
All of this loss had many fans giving up on the team. The MLB postseason has not involved the Phillies since the 2011 campaign. It appeared that even in this season for which the playoffs have expanded from the usual five teams out to eight, that this nine-year streak of futility would not end this year.
This twin bill had a chance to completely sink the 2020 Phillies. A split would keep them treading water. Getting swept would virtually seal their fate. Only a sweep of their own had a chance to rekindle the fires of hope down at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies desperately needed a hero. In the first game, one such hero stepped forward.
In Game One, 26-year-old fifth-year starting pitcher Zach Eflin was that hero. The righty took the mound for the start of the game and then walked off that mound as it ended, scattering four hits in tossing a 7-inning complete game shutout of the Blue Jays that got the Phillies back to the .500 mark.
In Game Two, manager Joe Girardi was forced to go with a bullpen game. Newcomer David Hale started and got the club to the 4th inning with a lead. When he got into trouble, Girardi turned to his most effective relief pitcher, rookie JoJo Romero. Instead of putting out the fire, Romero was ripped by the Jays for three runs and three hits, putting the Phillies into a 5-2 hole.
When these things happened previously this season the Phillies often went into a shell and would sleepwalk to a disheartening defeat. Once again, they were desperate for a hero. In their half of that 4th inning the most unlikely one stepped forward. With one out and two runners on base, rookie catcher Rafael Marchan, called up for his big-league debut just this week at age 21, crushed his first career home run deep into the right field seats to tie the game.
With new life at 5-5, the Phillies bullpen then did what it usually does, gave up runs. The Jays scored twice in the top of the 5th inning to go back in front by 7-5.
That score remained the same into the bottom of the 6th inning when, with two men on base and two outs, Bryce Harper stepped into the box. The Phillies’ superstar was finally showing signs of snapping out of a lengthy slump. He had homered in the opener, his third moon shot in the last two games. With just one inning left, the team might not get another shot like this one.
Harper did not let his team down, driving a ball to deep center field that went for a double. Two rookies, Mickey Moniak and Marchan, rolled around the bases to score and tie the game at 7-7. Then a third rookie, the most impressive hitter the Phillies have brought to the big-leagues in years, Alec Bohm, came through with a base hit to score Harper and push the Phillies into the lead.
The Phillies then took that one-run lead into the top of the 7th inning. Hector Neris came out to the mound tasked with closing it out. That simply has not happened most times this year. The Phillies bullpen has blown more wins built up by their offensive attack than any other relief pitcher corps in recent franchise history.
When he is on, Neris can be a complete shutdown closer. The opposition hitters have little to no chance. When he is off, Neris has a noticeable look. He takes off his cap and wipes his brow, looking to the sky as he walks around the mound when things aren’t going well, obviously lacking confidence in himself. It was this Neris who showed up last night.
After retiring the first two batters, Neris walked the next two. The tying run was at second base and talented rookie Cavan Biggio, son of Baseball Hall of Famer Craig Biggio, was at the plate for Toronto. Neris got ahead of him 1-2, and then Biggio ripped a ball to center field. But rather than it falling for a game-tying single, the ball hung in the air, hit so hard that speedy Phillies center fielder Quinn had time to rush in and snare it for the final out.
The Phillies had their first doubleheader sweep in eight years. More importantly, they moved back above the .500 mark at 26-25. With just nine games remaining they are a half-game in front of three other teams in the National League playoff race, 1.5 in front of a fourth team. Only three of those five will reach the postseason. They are a half-game behind the Miami Marlins in the race for second place in the division, which comes with an automatic playoff berth.
Friday night’s victories did not clinch a thing for the 2020 Phillies. But what they did was restore some equilibrium. It gave them a real opportunity. On Saturday evening at 6:05 PM they will send Vince Velasquez to the mound in what is the often exasperating right-hander’s biggest career start. It will come against Blue Jays ace lefty Hyun Jin Ryu.
What the Phillies need on Saturday evening is for Velasquez to follow the lead of Eflin and Marchan and Harper on Friday evening. They need him to finally harness his obvious talent in a pivotal moment and lead the team to victory in a big game. That would keep the winning, and the momentum, going as the club heads into its biggest final week in a decade.