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Bryce Harper’s return should spark an already hot Phillies team that currently sits in a postseason spot with some room to spare. (Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

Phillies Youth, Depth Weathering Storms And Making Noise; 7th-Day Stretch

Bryce Harper’s return should spark an already hot Phillies team that currently sits in a postseason spot with some room to spare. (Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports)

Phillies Youth, Depth Weathering Storms And Making Noise; 7th-Day Stretch

There was something fitting about Bryce Harper returning to organized baseball for the first time in nearly two months not for the Phillies, but for their Triple-A affiliate in Lehigh Valley. The reigning National League MVP probably could’ve returned straight to the show if he really wanted to. After all, his rehab assignment lasted just two games instead of the planned five. And it’s not like sentimentality was part of Harper’s rehab from a broken thumb suffered on June 25.

But the Phillies would not have survived Harper’s absence without so many players who, at one point this season, were playing in Lehigh Valley — if not elsewhere in the Phillies’ Minor League pipeline. It seems obvious, but it would have been out of reach for the Phillies in past years. This point of the season has been where desperation started to peak for the Phillies in years past. Injuries mount up at this time of the season for every team. Previously, that has exposed both roster construction and talent development problems across the organization.

In order for 2022 to be different — no, not that kind of different — the Phillies had to go from the bottom up. Most teams are sunk by their big free agency commitments and propped up by their young talent. The Phillies of the last few years have largely been the opposite. They’ve committed a combined $563,500,000 to Harper, Zack Wheeler, and J.T. Realmuto, and have received All-Star or better caliber play from all three. They have not been the issue. What was is almost everything behind them, especially the players who started in the Phillies organization. “I think the problem the Phillies have had for a hundred years is they don’t evaluate talent well,” owner John Middleton said after the Phillies came one agonizing win shy of reaching the postseason in 2020.

The idea of being in the postseason mix when Harper returned was always possible, but a long shot. Somehow, the Phillies might be a slight step above that. They are 2.5 games ahead of the Padres for the second Wild Card spot and four clear of Milwaukee for a spot, period. The Phillies also have the tie-breaker (a better head-to-head record) against both. The Phillies have plenty of experience in stretch runs, but they’ve always been chasing the pack at this point. Excluding the 60-game 2020 season, the latest in a season the Phillies have been in a postseason spot since 2011 is August 20.

That was back in 2018, a year where the Phillies relied quite a bit of homegrown talent, only to crash and burn after adding a bevy of veterans at the trade deadline and beyond (remember August acquisitions Justin Bour and José Bautista?) The Phillies simply ran out of gas each of the last three seasons after losing a key player to injury in the dog days — Andrew McCutchen in 2019, Rhys Hoskins in 2020, and Hoskins and Zach Eflin in 2021. The Phillies haven’t been much luckier this season. They lost Harper and Jean Segura to broken fingers. They’re currently without arguably their two best pitchers, Wheeler and Seranthony Domínguez. Corey Knebel is done for the year. Eflin might be as well. Yet here stand the Phillies, alive and well.

The day Harper went down, Bryson Stott was hitting .161/.216/.273. Two months earlier, he too was in Triple-A, less than a month after starting at third base on Opening Day. Alec Bohm had re-established himself as the everyday third baseman but was playing at a mediocre .260/.296/.355 clip. It would have been natural if the two tried to do too much to make up for the loss of Harper. Instead, Stott ditched the leg kick in his stance, something he’d already copied from Harper for two-strike counts. He has largely looked and produced like an everyday shortstop since. Bohm continued to work with infield coach Bobby Dickerson to improve his defense. When he has made mistakes, they don’t carry over to his at-bats like it did in 2021. He was 7th in the Majors in OPS in July.

While Stott and Bohm have been the headliners, they’ve hardly been the only players to step up. Matt Vierling has slumped at the plate lately but largely provided speed and defense in the outfield, not to mention filling in at second and third base earlier in the year. Nick Maton has done nothing but hit since being re-called in August after a promising first Major League stint of the season in June ended after just two games due to a shoulder injury. Darick Hall is second among Major League rookies in home runs since the All-Star break. He was inserted immediately into the cleanup spot for his MLB debut on June 29 and recorded an .846 OPS in 129 at-bats. Bailey Falter and Cristopher Sánchez have been solid in spot start duties as well.

It will take a long time before the Phillies’ farm-system becomes anything for opponents to fear. But the early returns under Minor League director Preston Mattingly are solid. RHPs Andrew Painter and Mick Abel have already reached and pitched well at Double-A Reading. They and fellow Reading right-hander Griff McGarry are widely regarded as Top 100 prospects in the sport. The Phillies parlayed breakout seasons from catcher Logan O’Hoppe and RHP Ben Brown into Brandon Marsh and David Robertson, respectively. Marsh may be the team’s center fielder of the future and is at least a strong defender and runner in the present. If not for Robertson, who has a 1.69 ERA in 10.2 innings with the Phillies, the best right-handers out of the bullpen would be a struggling Connor Brogdon, an inexperienced Andrew Bellatti, and Sam Coonrod, who missed the season;’s first three and a half months due to injury.

It all feels a lot more sound than in prior seasons. The last time the Phillies hosted the Pirates was Sept. 23-26, 2021, their final four home games of the season. Sure, the Phillies only lost once, just like this past weekend. But a year ago, one of those wins required overcoming a 6-0 deficit. Another saw the Phillies fall behind 4-1, take the lead only to blow it in the seventh, regain said lead in the bottom of the inning, and allow the potential go-ahead run to bat in the eighth and ninth innings. Earlier that month, the Phillies lost three of four to the Rockies and two of three in Miami.

Even acknowledging their injuries, the Phillies lost the NL East at least almost as much as the Braves won it in 2021. That can be a demoralizing realization, but it can also be encouraging. It means that a happy ending is closer than it’s been in a long, long time. Of course, whatever ending this season will have is still a ways away from revealing itself. The Phillies have seen the finish line before, only to stumble just short of it. It’s not that the 2022 Phillies haven’t tripped up; they have, and they probably will again. But they’ve been able to keep getting back up.

It’s not that the Phillies couldn’t be successful with their April formula. But the way they’re winning games in August feels a lot more replicable.

If everyone had to be just a little bit better to survive Harper’s absence, his return doesn’t mean they have to regress to their previous level. The pitching staff will be tested similarly, although there is hope both Domínguez and Wheeler will be back before long. One win at a time, the Phillies have been turning longstanding weaknesses into stealth strengths in 2022. If they just continue to stay in the win column, the only thing that will change is those stealth strengths won’t be stealthy much longer.

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