Phillies
José Alavardo tried to light a spark for the scuffling Phillies Friday, but back-to-back bullpen collapses over the weekend once again halt the Phils’ momentum in its tracks. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Baseball is a silly sport. One night, you win a game in which your only runs score on the same pitch your pitcher strikes out on. Another, you give up six runs in the eighth, then hit a game-tying home run that isn’t actually a home run. You might enter a month with one of the best lineups in baseball, and you might end it with half of it injured in some capacity. It’s possible to play in 12 one-run games out of 28, including four straight. And it’s even possible (though statistically improbable) to be 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9, 10-10, 11-11, 12-12, and 13-13. Yet that’s where the Philadelphia Phillies finished their first month of the 2021 regular season. Possible, but improbable.

That last statement probably defines the Phillies’ odds of winning the NL East, even though they ended April atop the division with the aforementioned 13-13 record. Especially considering they followed that with consecutive games lost in the 9th and 8th innings, respectively, to the rival Mets. April was a boring, exciting, relaxing, stressful, and injury-plagued month, sometimes all at the same time. It was a wild month full of exciting highs and frustrating lows. And as the calendar turns to May, where the 2021 Phillies are going remains up for grabs.

The defining theme of this past week was tension. After a fairly normal start to the week, the Phillies were thrown what might be the biggest curveball of their season (even though it was actually two fastballs from Génesis Cabrera). The first, at 97 MPH, hit Bryce Harper square in the face. The second plunked Didi Gregorius in the back. Philadelphia’s dugout was naturally incensed. Joe Girardi was so furious that he was ejected for “ejecting” Cabrera himself. He’s probably happy Cabrera had to stay in to face one more hitter; that was Andrew McCutchen, who drove-in pinch-runner Matt Joyce for the eventual game-winning run.

Crazy enough, nearly the same event played out on Saturday, only this time, the Phillies were the aggressors. José Alvarado, who returned this week after missing two weeks on the COVID list, plunked Michael Conforto in the 8th. it was not the first time Alvarado had hit Conforto with a high and tight heater in 2021. Domonic Smith was particularly aggressive from the dugout after the first instance. On Friday, Smith came up with a runner on second and Conforto on third. It was the 14th at-bat for a Met with a runner on base. Alvardo set down Smith, the thirteenth out in that scenario Friday, and started celebrating. Hard. And when Alvarado started jawing with Smith and dropped his glove hockey-style, the benches-clearing became inevitable. Alvarado is currently appealing a 3-game suspension for inciting the incident.

Cooler heads prevailed for all of five minutes. Miguel Castro began the eighth by walking Rhys Hoskins on four pitches, the last two of which were fastballs that missed awfully inside. The intention wasn’t all that subtle. Hoskins took exception. Players meandered to the top steps of both dugouts. The benches stayed mostly uncleared, but the tension remained thick. Top it all off with the second most controversial ending to a Phillies Sunday night game involving video review, and you have one of the wildest series in recent memory. The Phillies and Mets haven’t been truly fierce rivals for a while. If their mutual hatred reignites, it could challenge Dodgers-Padres for baseball’s best.

Of course, that will only happen if both teams start improving. The Mets ended April dead last in runs scored with just 58 (Detroit ranked 29th with 75); it’s hard to score when you’re dead last in baseball with runners in scoring position. Washington is right ahead of them at 28th. The Phillies are T-24th with 97; they’re just 28th in the league with RISP. Not to mention how poor their defense has been so far. The Marlins are only T-20th in runs. Atlanta is 7th in that department, but they’re also 28th in ERA. At the end of Sunday, just two and half games separate Washington (1st) from Miami (5th). Yet only Miami’s run different is positive; everyone else is in the negatives by double-digits. Most people expected the NL East to be tight, and so far, it is.

But somebody is going to pick it up eventually. It’s hard to imagine the Phillies doing so right now until they start to get healthy. But even at full strength, the Phillies are a flawed team. Matt Moore spent time on the COVID list and hasn’t been effective; Chase Anderson has been better, but only slightly, throwing a grand total of one pitch later than the 5th inning all season. So that’s why they’re abandoning the Spencer Howard as a reliever plan and shifting his 2021 focus back to starting, albeit with an innings limit.

While the back of the rotation is a problem, at least it isn’t a total black hole… unlike center field. Phillies center fielders are hitting worse than most pitching staffs. So that’s why Odúbel Herrera is getting a second chance 23 months after an 85-game suspension for domestic violence. Howard is back at the alternate site getting ready for his opportunity. Herrea’s (1/19, and the one is a bunt single) isn’t off to a hot start, to say the least.

If the club doesn’t start making progress, Dave Dombrowski may have to pull the trigger on a trade sooner rather than later for the Phillies to have a successful season, whatever that ends up meaning. The Phillies will have to decide whether they’re closer to their record (13-15) or their place in the standings. Or else baseball will decide it for them. And as this weekend proved, that usually doesn’t end very well.

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