Phillies
Rhys Hoskins and the Phillies have talent, but also a lot of hard work ahead of them if they hope to achieve their goals. (AP Photo/Laurence Kesterson)

There have been two types of games so far in 2021 for the Philadelphia Phillies. There are the ones when they do the little things right. The games where Roman Quinn throws out a runner at the plate, when they keep putting balls in play down two in the eighth, when the bullpen stems the tide after the starter is pulled early. Then there are the ones where their fundamentals fall apart. The games where Vince Velasquez walks four in one inning, where Alec Bohm makes two errors in the same frame, where José Alvarado forgets which base to throw to. It doesn’t take a genius to decipher which types of games the Phillies are winning, and which they are losing.

The little things matter even more on the road. Last year, their nine wins away from home were tied for the third-fewest in baseball. The year before, they finished fourth in the NL in road record (36-45) and fittingly finished fourth in the division. In 2018, their 31-50 mark came in second-worst in the NL. Some of their most humiliating defeats, most notably a blown 7-0 lead in a 7-inning doubleheader against Toronto, came away from Citizens Bank Park. Atlanta’s Truist Park has been the site of many losses that are either memorable or forgettable, depending on how you look at it. A 1-2 start on the road isn’t the end of the world, but the Phillies know they need to be better away from Philadelphia in 2021.

The Phillies have the high-end talent to bail them out of a lot of those mistakes. Andrew McCutchen smoked his longest home run since 2016 on Saturday night. Bryce Harper launched a 115.6 mile per hour missile the very next inning. They put Wednesday’s game out of reach early on first-inning home runs by Rhys Hoskins and Alec Bohm. Hoskins has more extra-base hits than any NL player not named Ronald Acuña Jr. But they don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone. And making 2021 a successful season will require more than just tape-measure dingers or triple-digit heaters from Alvarado or Sam Coonrod.

And while the bullpen, outside of Velasquez’s implosion on Tuesday, largely held their own. The Phillies don’t seem to be expecting more than five or so innings out of each Matt Moore and Chase Anderson start, which puts lots of pressure on the bullpen. They got 3.1, 5, and 5 innings in their first three starts. It puts even more pressure on the top three starters to go deep when they pitch to give the ‘pen a breather. That didn’t happen this week. Zack Wheeler was pulled in the 5th due to a mound-visit miscalculation by Joe Girardi, but a switch would’ve been justified regardless. Aaron Nola didn’t even reach the 5th on Wednesday. Zach Eflin looked to be on a similar track Saturday; his night started double, double, dinger. But he barred down and made it through six, allowing just one more run the rest of the way.

This is a team built to win games because of its offense and lose a few due to defense and pitching. That’s not my opinion; Dave Dombrowski said as much in Spring Training. That makes some of their early offensive struggles a tough pill to swallow. It took Harper until game eight to go deep, his longest drought to start a season since he was a rookie in 2012. Bohm is still strong with runners in scoring position (.286/.250/.714) but hasn’t done much with no runners aboard. McCutchen tripled Wednesday and homered Saturday, but is still unknown because he’s 34 and is just fully recovering from ACL surgery nearly two years ago.

This is not exclusively a Phillies problem. Offensive numbers are down across the league. New baseballs engineered to have less pop are a factor, but it’s pitching that’s ruled the day so far in 2021. The average OBP in the NL is barely above .300 (.308 entering Saturday). Of course, not every team is like the Phillies. They are betting on a quicker and more dramatic improvement than most clubs also going through some early struggles. After all, they are 3rd in the NL in batting average, which makes it hard to believe they’ve only topped four runs twice. The offense is capable of carrying the load; it just hasn’t consistently. Sunday’s performance shows their potential. First, Hoskins, Didi Gregorius, and Harper homered their way out of a three-run deficit. Then the Phils producing the winning run in the 9th on a Bohm double and two productive outs.

The Phillies may not have won the series battle in Atlanta this weekend, but at least they (maybe?) won this hilariously spontaneous argument.

One thing that might not get better, at least internally, is the hitting black hole at center field. The Phillies very clearly do not trust Adam Haseley, who made a costly defensive misread Monday, against southpaws. Roman Quinn is 1/12; he hasn’t been able to hit lefties or righties with any consistency. It’s hard for Quinn to fully weaponize his speed when he’s striking out so much. It’s a position the Phillies could’ve improved in the offseason; at one point, they were linked to Jackie Bradley Jr. They ultimately chose to trust their internal options. Ten games don’t define a season, but it’s sure not a promising start for an already skeptical decision.

If Dave Dombrowski is a buyer at the trade deadline, adding a center fielder could be a top priority. But July 31 is a very long way from now. The first seven hitters are capable of carrying the load. But it would be nice if it felt like the center fielder was less of a lock to hit eighth than the pitcher to bat ninth.

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