The Phillies entered this season, the second in a rebuilding effort, with no real expectations of making the postseason. Still, the Phils played well enough for two stretches in the first half — one early, one late — to find themselves on the periphery of the National League wild-card race when they returned from the All-Star break Friday night.
“What are we, six games out of the wild card?” manager Pete Mackanin, peppy and well-rested after the break, said before his team got back to work against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. “Why not? Let’s set our sights high.”
A few hours later, Mackanin wasn’t quite as upbeat.
“Well, that’s not the way we wanted to start the homestand,” he said after watching his team absorb a 5-3 loss to the New York Mets (see Instant Replay).
The Mets have won 21 of their last 28 games in Philadelphia, dating to June 2013.
The Phillies averaged 5.73 runs per game over their final 16 games before the break, but scored just three unearned runs in this game.
They had just five hits and only one for extra bases.
Bartolo Colon, the Mets’ rotund, 43-year-old, All-Star right-hander set the tone for the night by opening the game with 4 1/3 perfect innings. He ran out of gas on a steamy night when the Phillies sent eight men to the plate in the sixth inning and scored three unearned runs, one on Peter Bourjos’ RBI triple.
“Colon was typical Colon,” Mackanin said. “He’s got deception, movement and excellent command. We finally got to him in the sixth, but their bullpen shut us down.”
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson marveled at Colon a little bit.
“He lets his movement do everything,” Hellickson said. “He throws strikes and lets his defense do the work, and that’s the name of the game. He can throw that two-seamer and start it wherever he wants and end it wherever he wants and it’s tough to square up. It is pretty impressive what he’s doing at his age.”
Hellickson allowed four runs over six innings. All came on homers, a solo shot by Juan Lagares in the third and a three-run shot by Neil Walker in the sixth. Walker’s home came on a full-count fastball with no outs after Hellickson gave up a pair of singles to open the inning.
Hellickson is 6-7 with a 4.03 ERA in 19 starts. He was quite dejected after this loss.
“That’s how I feel every time I lose,” he said. “The way Colon was pitching, I have to keep it a one-run game.”
It was not surprising that the Phillies set up their rotation to have Hellickson leading off the second half. At 29, he is the elder statesman on a young Phillies’ staff. He was the Phils’ opening day starter back in April.
What was interesting about Hellickson’s place in the post-break rotation is it coincided with Jake Thompson’s place in Triple A Lehigh Valley’s post-break rotation. It was probably no coincidence at all that Thompson also pithed Friday night. It’s mid-July. The trade deadline is approaching. Plenty of teams are looking for a back-end, veteran starter like Hellickson and he is very much available. Hellickson will be a free agent at season’s end.
If Hellickson is traded in the next couple of weeks, Thompson could slide seamlessly into the Phillies’ rotation. The 22-year-old right-hander is on one heck of a roll. He pitched seven scoreless innings in a 10-0 win over Buffalo on Friday night. Thompson has given up just four earned over 56 1/3 innings in his last eight starts. He has surrendered just one home run in that span. It’s only a matter of time before he gets a look in Philadelphia.
Hellickson knows the reality of the business. He’s been mentioned as a mid-season trade candidate since the Phillies acquired him in November.
“Yeah, it's on my mind, just when I see it on Twitter or talk to you guys about it,” he said after Friday night's game. “But other than that, I'm focused every day doing what I have to do to get ready for my next start. Like I've said all along, I love it here. I'd love to be here the rest of the year, but obviously I've been through it before and know that side of the game. But, yeah, my focus is on here and my next start right now.
“When or if [a trade] happens, I’ll deal with it then. But right now my focus is here.”
The Phillies are seven games under .500. Like Mackanin, Hellickson believes the Phils can be players for a wild card.
“I feel like we can definitely do it,” he said. “We just have to string some wins together like we did at the end of the first half.
“Obviously this wasn’t a good start today. But I absolutely think we can make a run at it.”