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Contributors both new and old have been aplenty throughout the Phillies’ season, and this time, September isn’t shaping up differently. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

After Early Scare, Phillies Hope To Be Stronger In September; 7th-Day Stretch

Contributors both new and old have been aplenty throughout the Phillies’ season, and this time, September isn’t shaping up differently. (Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports)

After Early Scare, Phillies Hope To Be Stronger In September; 7th-Day Stretch

For the second straight Sunday, David Robertson stood on the mound in the ninth inning with a sweep at stake, hoping to keep the score where it was. His final pitch on Sept. 4, his 41st of the game, was a breaking ball — a slider, to be specific — that hung. Wilmer Flores deposited it just inside the left field foul pole for a walk-off home run. The Phillies had lost for the sixth time in their last seven games, which came against the Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Giants, a trio averaging just over 61 wins.

In the previous four Septembers, the Phillies have posted four losing records, spiraling to a combined total of 46-67. An 0-3 start to their most pivotal one in over a decade, which is the case in large part due to those previous failures, was bound to cause panic outside of the clubhouse. But as the Phillies return to the road, they do so in this still young month with a winning record. Robertson himself clinched that, needing just 15 pitches (ten of them breaking balls, nine of them a tight knuckle-curve) to strike out the 2-3-4 hitters of the Washington Nationals in a seven-hour, 7-5 win yesterday.

Past September series against teams out of the postseason mix have rarely been reprieves. Even though the Phillies have been chasing teams in all but one of those last four final full months of the season (the 60-game 2020 season providing the exception), all of the opportunities that have been left there for the taking have created a distinct feeling. What always seemed like the moment where things might fall apart always was. What always seemed like the perfect chance to push things in the right direction for good was never just that.

A six-game homestand against the Miami Marlins and Washington Nationals, who have a combined record of 106-174, certainly qualifies as such. What’s made this Phillies team feel different than the disappointing squads of the past is the consistency and control they played with throughout the summer. Even though the team had a very successful homestand, it was a bit rockier than their 5-1 record indicates. For example, Robertson’s successful Sunday largely came from having the previous two days off after blowing a save Thursday and general shakiness over the past few weeks. None of their wins were by more than three runs. The opposing team scored in the final three innings in five of the six games. But it’s easier to accept a few chaotic wins in a season full of more comfortable ones than years past.

The Phillies constructed a lineup that could be good even without a key part or two. They were able to withstand Bryce Harper’s two-month absence. Bailey Falter’s emergence as an excellent spot starter, if not more, is providing a vital cushion while the Phillies wait for the impending return of Zack Wheeler, who hasn’t pitched since Aug. 20 and isn’t on pace to return for at least another week. Three weeks without Seranthony Domínguez left a bit larger dent in the team. It made sense to rely on Robertson, their next-best right-handed reliever. But the 37-year-old was clearly being overworked.

So, the Phillies pulled back, even though the fallback options weren’t spectacular. Connor Brogdon had his first two save opportunities since July 29. The potential go-ahead run batted both nights. But both times Brogdon buckled down. Brad Hand had a save chance as well, though with two on and two out Rob Thomson turned to Nick Nelson, who is usually the team’s long man. He had never pitched in a ninth-inning save situation. He induced a harmless ground ball to second to extinguish the threat. Andrew Bellatti, who from 2016-2021 recorded a 13.50 ERA in three Major League games, became a go-to seventh-inning option. Even Sam Coonrod, who on paper is the team’s sixth-best right-handed reliever when everyone is healthy, became a big spot option.

Perhaps the simplest explanation for the Phillies’ success in 2022 is they have largely asked players to produce within themselves. An exciting 7-for-7 hot streak from a role player like Edmundo Sosa is fun. But it doesn’t mean the Phillies need to consider him as an everyday option. A clutch two-hit, two-RBI game from rookie Dalton Guthrie in the team’s 5-3 win on Sept. 9 is a great story. But not one the Phillies desperately need him to replicate. Domínguez’s injury started to force the bullpen in that familiar, grueling direction. It was a burden on everyone. But after a 25-day absence, Domínguez is back. He struggled to find the zone a bit early but flashed strong velocity in a 1-2-3 eighth inning on Sunday. Domínguez comfortably set the stage for a rested Robertson. Suddenly, a Phillies bullpen that had been merely decent if not dramatic lately looked lights out.

The Phillies rolled the dice on their depth, which is improved but still not perfect, in Domínguez’s absence. The results were about as good as they could’ve asked for. It’s better to be lucky than good, but it’s even better to be both. The bullpen needed some rest over the weekend. And it got just enough on Friday and Saturday thanks to solid starts from Noah Syndergaard and Ranger Suárez, who both pitched into the seventh, to hang in on Sunday when Aaron Nola’s start ended after just two innings due to a historic rain delay. They in turn bought time for the once-again homer-happy offense — the Phillies slugged 12 long balls in their six-game homestand, one fewer than that they hit in their prior 13 contests — to pull away.

This is the formula that almost every good team uses to win, balancing contributions from each part of the roster. Balance makes it easier to handle the ups and downs of a wild card race, no matter where or what conditions the games take place in. There are only 23 days remaining in the regular season. This time, the Phillies have the optimal type of separation. They more or less have a magic number — it’s 18, currently ticking down after Phillies wins and Brewers losses. The only reason it’s sort of a technicality is the later part of the equation would change if the Brewers jumped the Padres for the last wild card spot. Another team could pass also pass the Brewers from behind. However, they’re seven games clear of the Giants, the next closest team. If Milwaukee is improbably passed, it probably means the Phillies are in cruise control.

If you’re nervous to a fault about the present, at least Andrew Painter’s dominant profile should provide hope for the future.

Yet as long as the Phillies are still in normal control, they should be feeling good. It’s difficult to say they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt because the last eleven years have been challenging for everyone. Anyone who’s been around for even one of the last few Septembers knows that all too well. But for months, the Phillies have plugged away, progressing from underachieving to hot to sneaky to solid. There’s still fear in the backs of minds that their upcoming six-game trip will be as disastrous as the last. It’s unlikely anyone will be calm when it ends — but not because failure is inevitable. It’s because it could put the Phillies on the cusp of what September is supposed to feel like.

I also wanted to include Jarod Prosser’s well-written eulogy of NBA writer Jonathan Tjarks, who recently passed away at age 34. The article also includes a link to a GoFundMe supporting Tjarks’s wife and son. May he rest in peace.

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