Phillies
It was a humbling week for Héctor Neris, the Phillies bullpen, and the team as a whole, who are desperate to regain their opening weekend momentum. (David Zalubowski/AP)

Before the Phillies had a chance to build on Aaron Nola’s complete-game shutout last Sunday, before they “welcomed” ex-manager Gabe Kapler and the San Francisco Giants to Citizens Bank Park, before they blew a multi-run lead in five consecutive games, the bad news hit. COVID-19’s impact is still potent, and it cost the Phillies José Alvarado, Matt Moore, Ronald Torreyes, and several coaches this week. Perhaps their biggest loss came on a more traditional injury; second baseman Jean Segura strained his quad running out a grounder on Tuesday. He joined Archie Bradley on the 10-day IL the next day.

The 2020 MLB season was a full-on sprint. This year, baseball is back to its traditional marathon state. Injuries will happen, depth will be tested, and slumps will happen even when you don’t expect them. Maybe that’s why the Phillies dropped four of six to the surprisingly solid Giants and the unsurprisingly struggling Rockies this week. The Phillies are certainly hoping those are the main reasons. But even they will admit the general reasons aren’t the only ones. After an exciting start, cracks are beginning to show.

After doing their best to erase their nightmare 2020, the Phillies bullpen reminded us they are still not bullet-proof. Of course, being without Bradley and Alvarado is a tough pill to swallow. They should return before long, but the interim was not pretty. Connor Brogdon, who began the season as rock-solid as anyone, gave up 6 runs in the 7th inning Tuesday to turn a tight lead into an insurmountable deficit. A sliding stop by Nick Maton at second may have prevented a relapse on Saturday.

The night before, the Phillies used small-ball to take the lead; each of their first three runs came from productive outs. Then the Rockies took advantage of the elevation and mistakes by Sam Coonrod and Hector Neris, tying and walking off the game with long balls. It’s the first time all season Colorado won when trailing after six. And then David Hale relieved a struggling Chase Anderson (who had just allowed an RBI single to the pitcher) on Sunday. He surrendered a grand slam to Trevor Story, the first batter he faced. Philadelphia’s pitching depth is in absolute shambles. Yes, then bullpen (when healthy) is certainly better than last year’s. But all of the pressure rests on the position players when Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin aren’t on the mound to bail out the supporting cast.

Now, could the bullpen have gotten some more help? Absolutely. As a team, the Phillies are -8 in defensive runs saved above average. More specifically, Andrew McCutchen dropped a routine fly ball that led to a late go-ahead run for San Francisco Wednesday. The team has committed 10 errors this season, which isn’t that an egregious amount; but Didi Gregorius has made half of them. When Scott Lauber asked him what he needed to improve defensively, Gregorius simply answered, “Everything.”

Offensively, just because there’s pressure doesn’t mean they also can’t be better. The club tied a season-high 11 runners left on base Monday and struck out 11 times on Friday. Both were close defeats where one big swing could have made the difference. The Phillies’ overall offensive production isn’t where they want it to be right now; they rank just 22nd in the Majors in runs scored entering Sunday.

But they are certainly capable of putting together those big swings. Bryce Harper canceled out McCutchen’s error with a game-tying homer in the bottom half of the inning Wednesday. Rhys Hoskins kicked a trash can after the Phillies were shut out Monday. On Saturday, he launched two home runs and out-scored the Rockies himself (5 RBI) with his dad proudly watching on. Despite their lack of output on the scoreboard, the Phillies are 6th in batting average and 8th in OPS in the Majors. The offense isn’t perfect, but they’re close to putting things together.

In the midst of this adversity has come to some positivity. Not much, granted, but some. Mickey Moniak slashed his first career home run Wednesday just before a massive but thankfully brief storm kicked in. Even Roman Quinn lashed his first extra-base hit of the season on Saturday (though center field is still a massive offensive black-hole; it says a lot that one extra-base hit is enough to count as progress). Nick Maton replaced Torreyes on the bench, then replaced Segura at second. He’s hitting .474/.500/.632 in 5 games while providing good defense at second.

On the rotation side, the most notable (or at least most unique) story of the week was Vince Velasquez being forced into a start with Moore out due to COVID protocols. Four innings with two earned runs (both of 4th inning solo shots) won’t wow anybody, but Velasquez did his job: keep the Phillies in the game. It’s certainly not what the once highly touted prospect imagined he’d be doing in 2021. But after his season began with an erratic relief appearance that put a close game out of reach, Joe Girardi asked him to just be a little bit better on Friday. He was, but the aforementioned bullpen struggles prevented it from being enough.

This won’t be the only bout with adversity the Phillies have all season. I could write about adversity every single week if I wanted to, whether the Phillies go 7-0, 0-7, or anywhere in between. As their record shows, the Phillies’ response to adversity hasn’t been disastrous, but it certainly leaves room for improvement. That is the state where just about every team in the tightly packed but perhaps slightly underwhelming NL East sits. But wasting opportunities like the one they threw away this week is a slippery slope that could tailspin quickly.

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