Phillies better be ready to go (base)balls to the wall for 60 games

Phillies better be ready to go (base)balls to the wall for 60 games

Baseball is back.

It did not go (completely) down the road to destruction, after all.

Surely, the financial squabble between the owners and the players was a major turn-off to some folks, especially as the country is going through a health crisis, but those who stick around for this 60-game season might end up with some pretty good nightly entertainment on their television screens.

The baseball season has long been described as a marathon. 

This one will be a sprint.

Players can't afford to pace themselves and ease into the season. There's no banking on a big second half, no gearing up for the stretch drive. From the moment the first pitch is delivered a month from now, teams will be in the stretch drive.

(Base)balls to the wall.

It will be a major change for a sport that languidly weaves its way through the spring and summer, up one month, down the next, with the strongest, sharpest, healthiest, most focused and talented teams living to breathe the cool, exciting air of an October playoff tournament.

The needle needs to be pinned from Day 1 because, as old friend Jeff Francoeur recently told us, "Someone throws up a 10-20, they're not coming back from that."

All of this urgency should create excitement for players and fans. But what impact will a short season have on games? Which teams will benefit most from a short season? Which teams will be hurt?

As always, talent will reign supreme. The teams with the best players stand the best chance to be successful. But those talented players must still play well. A short season will bring some randomness into the equation. There's no hiding in a 162-game season. It exposes all of a team's weaknesses. But a flawed team can play over its weaknesses in a 60-game season. Someone can get hot and carry a club for a month before handing the baton off to some other ball carrier. Conversely, a good team or a good player can go cold for a stretch and the impact of that cold spell can drag a good team down to a point from which it can't recover in a short season.

The Phillies won five division titles from 2007 to 2011. They won the World Series in 2008. That might have been their third-best team in that era, but they won it all because they got hot in September and October and players raised their games in big moments. Not enough of that happened for the Phils in subsequent postseasons. Other teams got hot, raised their games and won.

So, ultimately, the teams that play the best will succeed in this shortened season. It starts with talent. But that talent has to perform.

And in the short season of 2020, the talent also has to stay healthy, and that means more than avoiding oblique strains.

COVID-19 remains a real threat to completing the season. Some players already have it. Others will get it. MLB is crossing its fingers (not licking them) that health and safety protocols will keep the virus under control. Time will tell if that can happen.

The Phillies have not had a winning season since 2011. If they have one this season, it will be accompanied by a "yeah, but," but no one is going to throw it back. The Phils had strong starts the last two seasons under Gabe Kapler and big collapses down the stretch. A shorter season would seem to help the Phillies if they have a similar trajectory in 2020.

There are reasons to believe the Phillies can have that winning season and make a run at the postseason:

They will have Andrew McCutchen from Day 1. The leadoff spot was a sinkhole after McCutchen went down last year. McCutchen had a .378 on-base percentage, second-best in the majors among leadoff men, when he went down on June 3. After that, Phillies leadoff men ranked 29th in the majors with a .295 on-base percentage. Management did not fix the leadoff problem after McCutchen went down last year so this season he can fix it himself.

Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are not only great players, they are (base)balls-to-the-wall guys who will push the team out of the gate. Depending on how his contract negotiations resume, Realmuto could be on a major free-agent salary drive and that generally raises performance.

New skipper Joe Girardi connected well with the team in spring training and we expect his impact to continue in the form of a no-excuses approach to the game and an expectation of winning every night.

From McCutchen, Harper and Realmuto to the addition of Didi Gregorius, to the promise of Scott Kingery and the potential rebounds of Rhys Hoskins and Jean Segura, there are plenty of reasons to like what this lineup could be.

There is also much to like about the top of the pitching rotation as any team in baseball would like to have Aaron Nola or Zack Wheeler take the ball every fifth day.

This team's success, be it in a 162-game season or a 60-game season, rides on the dropoff after Nola and Wheeler — from the No. 3 spot in the rotation right through the bullpen. Starting pitchers aren't going to be ready to carry full loads early on. They might not be ready to get through the middle innings for a few weeks. That will test bullpens and only the strong will survive. This could be a problem for the Phils, who did little to improve their 'pen in the offseason. The Nationals have better personnel in their bullpen than the Phillies, and the Braves and Mets both made notable additions to their 'pens over the winter. The Phils will need some unexpected success from a cast of mostly middling relievers if they are going to overcome last year's fourth-place finish in the NL East. They will also need Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin to make big contributions in the rotation. And maybe Spencer Howard, depending on how service time will be structured in this odd year, needs to come sooner rather than later. These Phils will need an X-factor to step up on the pitching staff. Maybe it's Vince Velasquez and Nick Pivetta going to the bullpen and firing gas for a couple of months.

A shortened schedule puts a premium on how a team plays in its division. The Phils were completely unfocused against the lowly Marlins last season and it cost them dearly. The division-winning Braves and wild-card Nationals both went 15-4 against the Marlins last season while the third-place Mets went 13-6. The Phillies went 9-10 against Miami. Their performance against the Marlins was a killer flaw and it can't happen again.

The Phils are not the best team on paper heading into this different kind of season, but they are certainly not the worst. They have talent, but that talent has to click in a hurry. (Base)balls to the wall. Get hot. Get on the good side of chance and randomness and maybe there will be some October baseball around here for the first time in nine years.

It's 2020. The marathon has become a sprint. It will be different and it will be entertaining.

Just remember.

No spitting.

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COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

COVID-19 cases and player opt-outs mounting across MLB

The Phillies have four players on the COVID-19 injured list (Hector Neris, Ranger Suarez, Scott Kingery and Tommy Hunter) and three more who have yet to arrive in camp because of coronavirus protocols (Aaron Nola, Adam Haseley and Christian Bethancourt).

We’re already seeing how unsteady and unpredictable this 60-game season will be. Nola is the Phillies’ best starting pitcher and Neris is their best reliever. Kingery is their starting second baseman. Haseley was set to start or split time in center field. Suarez was in the race for the fifth starter’s job.

So much for the Phillies would change without them, and it’s reasonable to expect at least a few of them will miss time early in the season. Phillies lefty Cole Irvin said Saturday he thinks it could take pitchers up to six weeks to return from coronavirus because it would require two weeks of quarantine, then the resumption of throwing, then a few bullpen sessions. The severity of cases varies, but it looks like it will generally cost pitchers more time than position players.

The best hitter in the NL East, Freddie Freeman, is also dealing with COVID-19 and is not feeling well at all right now, according to his wife Chelsea. Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters Saturday "it will be a while 'til we can get him back." It totally changes the Braves’ equation and 2020 chances if their rock is missing for a third of the season.

Will Smith, Atlanta’s top-tier lefty reliever signed to a three-year, $39 million in the offseason, also tested positive. Then on Saturday, Braves starting pitcher Felix Hernandez opted out of the season, as did their first base coach Eric Young Sr. Four Marlins players tested positive as well.

Yankees All-Star infielder D.J. LeMahieu tested positive.  So did Royals catcher Salvador Perez, Twins slugger Miguel Sano, Padres outfielder Tommy Pham and Indians speedster Delino DeShields Jr. Last week, Charlie Blackmon tested positive. There are at least another dozen known or suspected cases around the league with more, surely, to come.

On Friday, Mike Trout said "Honestly, I still don’t feel comfortable" about the season ahead with a pregnant wife.

On Saturday, Dodgers left-hander David Price opted out of the season because of health and family concerns, joining King Felix, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Mike Leake and Joe Ross. Buster Posey is reportedly mulling the decision too.

Other than that ... decent first weekend of camp?

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Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

Aaron Nola not in Phillies camp; will Zack Wheeler start opener?

It has been widely assumed that Aaron Nola will make his third straight opening day start when the Phillies begin their shortened 2020 season later this month.

But now you have to wonder if things might be shaping up for Zack Wheeler to make that start.

Nola has not participated in either of the Phillies' first two workouts since training camp opened — re-opened might be a better way to put it — on Friday.

"He is not here yet," manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. "We're trying to work our way through that."

Nola is said to be working out, throwing, locally. It's unclear why he has not worked out with the club, though many things are unclear in the age of COVID-19. Girardi is prohibited from discussing anything related specifically to COVID-19.

Center fielder Adam Haseley has also missed the first two workouts. He is also said to be working out locally, away from the team.

Girardi did say Haseley's absence was "due to a medical condition. We're trying to work through it and get him here."

Ditto for non-roster catcher Christian Bethancourt, who, despite being absent from the 60-man player pool, is still part of the organization, according to Girardi.

Already, the Phillies are without pitchers Ranger Suarez, Tommy Hunter and Hector Neris and second baseman Scott Kingery. All are on a special COVID-19 injured list.

If you're keeping score at home, the Phillies have yet to see their potential opening day starting pitcher, their second baseman and their center fielder. That's not exactly good for the strength-up-the-middle philosophy. At least shortstop Didi Gregorius worked out for the first time Saturday. Catcher J.T. Realmuto is in camp and working out, as well.

Given that Nola has been throwing, it's still possible he could make the opening day start in three weeks. But if he's delayed much longer getting into camp, Wheeler could jump in. The right-hander threw to hitters on Saturday and his next outing could come in an intrasquad game, according to Girardi. That could put him considerably ahead of Nola.

"I thought he looked pretty good," Girardi said of Wheeler's work on Saturday. "I think in a lot of ways, pitchers might be ahead of where they would be in a normal spring training when it comes to the volume, but what they're missing is having a hitter in there and competing. 

"That's what our concern is about, being sharp and being able to get out of jams and those sorts of things. But I thought he looked pretty good today. His next outing, I'm not sure what it'll be, if it'll be another bullpen, a simulated game, or even an intrasquad but he should be able to go further as long as he wakes up and feels good."

It's not a given that Wheeler would be the opening day starter if Nola doesn't get enough time to prepare with the team. Wheeler's wife is due to give birth around the time of the July 23 or 24 opener. He will leave the team for a few days to be with his wife. But if the birth doesn't happen until a day or two after opening day, Wheeler could make that start then slip away to be with his family and possibly not even miss a start.

More will be known in the coming days. But Nola's status is certainly something to keep an eye on.

Meanwhile, another player, former American League Cy Young winner David Price of the Dodgers, opted out of his season on Saturday because of concerns about COVID-19.

Girardi is still confident the season will get off the ground.

Time will tell.

"I think there's a lot of concern and I think that's why we continue to educate as much as we can," he said. "We continue to test every other day, there's temperature checks a number of times during the day. 

"It's players being socially responsible to themselves, to the people around them, and to their teammates. If you have a symptom, don't just assume 'Ah, I have a headache today. It's normal,' or 'I'm sneezing more than normal today. It's my allergies.' You have to be completely honest in all of these questionnaires that we fill out or you jeopardize everyone in the room. It is a concern, yes."

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