Andrew McCutchen is heating up, and so were the Phillies until Freddie Freeman and the Braves took two of three (and a bit of their swagger). Can the Phillies get it back again? (AP Photo / John Bazemore)

Rhys Hoskins had a very clear message for the umpiring crew of last week’s (May 2nd) Sunday night baseball crew after his game-tying home run was overturned and ruled a double. It was not a pleasant one. And the frustration grew when Bryce Harper, in his first game since taking a 97-mph heater to the face, struck out six pitches later to end the game. The Phillies had lost consecutive games for the first time since April 19-20. And to have it happen against a divisional rival like the Mets? Talk about pouring salt on the wound.

A similar story unfolded on Saturday night. On three separate occasions, the Phillies bullpen was three outs away from clinching a series victory over the Atlanta Braves. On three separate occasions, they couldn’t put the Braves away. Héctor Neris surrendered a game-tying two-run pinch-hit shot to Pablo Sandoval, his second of the variety against the Phils this year. A throwing error by Didi Gregorius allowed extra-innings designated runner Cristian Pache to tie the game in the 11th. The Phillies benefited from a similar mistake in the top of the 12th and entered the bottom of the frame up by three. Enyel De Los Santos, who was eligible to pitch, probably wishes his outing played out like Monday’s managerial debacle. His line: walk, single, game-tying three-run double. Two batters later, Ehire Adrianza laced a walk-off single off Matt Moore. Hearts: crushed.

Losses like these are never easy to handle. Especially for a team that went through so many avoidable ones a year ago when avoiding just one more would’ve sent them to the Postseason. Do you know what makes them easier pills to swallow? Winning five straight in between them. Granted, the bullpen played with fire in most of those games too. Héctor Neris recorded a five-out, 40-pitch save on Monday after Milwaukee scored two in the eighth. Sam Coonrod went one step further, retiring the final six batters of Tuesday’s victory after a five-run third inning nearly went to waste. A scoreless seventh, eighth, and ninth from Moore (last game: April 17), De Los Santos (last game: June 23, 2019), and José Alvarado prevented the Phils from spoiling a five-run first. But the Phillies still won all of them.

Now you know why Joe Girardi stuck with Zack Wheeler a fourth time through the order on Thursday. With Wheeler at 117 pitches and runners on first and second with two outs in the ninth, Girardi entrusted him with a 2-0 lead and a chance at the Phils’ first four-game home sweep of the Brewers since 2008 (they also had one on the road in 2014). Dan Vogelbach popped the first pitch into Rhys Hoskins’ glove to end the contest. Hoskins himself had driven in a crucial insurance run in the bottom of the eighth with a two-out RBI double. The Phillies scored a run early in the 1st on Saturday, then added five more with two outs to take Atlanta’s capacity crowd out of the game before it really even began.

There were several games last year where the Phillies’ offense could’ve done a better job providing insurance, even if they were far from the team’s main reason for collapsing. Your strengths need to be your strengths, after all, especially when your weaknesses are acting against them. What’s even more impressive about that winning streak is the first four victories came without Harper and Jean Segura. The latter is second in the Majors in batting average (min. 50 AB) and started the Atlanta series 5/6 with 4 RBIs and a homer. In the first big lineup shuffle of the season, Girardi moved Segura to second and a slumping Hoskins to seventh. A strong week at the plate for Andrew McCutchen (10/24, 3 HR, 6-game hitting streak) keeps him leading off. Even though his defense in the left is still a bit suspect.

Speaking of McCutchen, when he homered on the first pitch Sunday, it seemed like Saturday’s collapse might have a similar effect as last Sunday’s against the Mets. But Aaron Nola didn’t have his A-game, the Braves scored four in the first, and cruised to a 6-1 win. The Phillies will have an extra day to stir on what coulda, shoulda, woulda been a rare series win at Truist Park (the Phillies are 2-9-1 in series there since it opened in 2017). Maybe that’s what they need to find the ways to win games like they did to start the week. Or maybe it’s just another blip on the inconsistency radar. Maybe both is a valid answer, too.

Ultimately, the Phillies are in the same spot a lot of teams are in. They know their strengths (hitting, 1-3 rotation) and weaknesses (bullpen, defense); they’re just trying to figure out how strong both of them truly are. Picking up five wins a week while doing that is a pretty good way to go about business. Can Vince Velasquez (15.1 IP, 2 ER this week) be a consistent #4 starter? Is Odúbel Herrera, Roman Quinn (who was starting to produce a little before going on the IL this week), or someone else internal a legitimate option to be the starting center fielder moving forward? It’s only May, so the Phillies have the luxury of time and reps to provide answers to these questions.

Here me talk more about the NL East (as well as some hockey and general writing discussion) on the latest episode of Kriegs Korner.

Barring an insanely aggressive trade deadline, no one will ever confuse the 2021 Phillies for a perfect team. But they at the very least seem like a good one 20% of the way through the season. How good are they really? They’ll let you know when they do.

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