NEW YORK — The Phillies enter the All-Star break with their first road series win in over a month.
Yes, it came against the Mets.
Yes, Mickey Callaway’s club in disarray.
Yes, the Phillies are supposed to win when Aaron Nola pitches.
Still, it was a series they needed to claim. They needed to end the first half on a high note, with momentum, with positive vibes and with their ace continuing to look like he’s recaptured his 2018 magic.
Nola has done just that over the last three weeks. He has recorded 89 outs and allowed two earned runs over his last four starts, lowering his ERA from 4.89 to 3.74 in the process. He has looked totally dominant in two starts against the Mets, one against the Braves and one vs. the Marlins. It culminated Sunday with more brilliance in an 8-3 Phillies win.
“I believe that with Nola's track record, what is most likely to happen is that he will return to his normal performance and we're going to be able lean on him as one of the best pitchers in baseball,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “And I think over the course of the last four starts, we've seen that.
“It's tough to come into this ballpark against their big three in (Jacob) deGrom, (Noah) Syndergaard and (Zack) Wheeler and come out with a series win. So really proud of our guys for the work that they did in this series.”
At 47-43, the Phillies are 6.5 games behind the Braves and a half-game behind the Nationals. They’re in third place and on pace for 85 wins. Not good enough. Not what managing partner John Middleton had in mind when he signed off on adding more than $430 million of future payroll this past offseason.
There is much work to do. To get to 90 wins, the Phillies must win 60 percent of their remaining games. And their second-half schedule is not soft, at least not right away. Out of the break, the Phillies have a seven-game homestand against the Nationals and Dodgers, who own the two best starting rotations in the league.
The Phillies just won a series against the Mets’ big three, and right out of the break they will likely get the Nationals’ big three of Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Stephen Strasburg.
At least the bats are coming around.
“I think it's a good time for us to step back and reflect and adjust and get to work,” Kapler said. “And obviously, we can enjoy the break but think about ways that we can do better in the second half. I think we're playing better baseball, swinging the bats better, and I think we've been swinging the bats better for several weeks now. So if we had more games coming up here, I'd feel pretty good about our chances. I feel like we are improving in some areas.”
The Phillies averaged 6.3 runs over their final 13 games of the first half. They will need to continue to approach that number the rest of the way to make up for a lackluster rotation behind Nola. While Nola has a 0.61 ERA in his last four starts, all other Phillies starting pitchers have a 7.58 ERA in the 13 games over that span.
“Been kind of up and down in the first half,” Nola said of the Phillies’ play overall. “We were in first for a little while and the Braves kinda got hot at the right time. Still a lot of ball left. ... It’s not gonna be an easy road to the end.”
Injuries played a huge role in the Phillies’ disappointing first half. They’ve had 16 players hit the injured list — twice as many as the Braves — and lost their starting centerfielder to a season-ending suspension.
No team in baseball has suffered more bullpen injuries than the Phillies’ nine.
“We came in with a really good bullpen and a lot of the guys got hurt,” Nola said. “I think that’s gonna be a big part of the second half is getting more guys.”
Tommy Hunter returned in the final days of June and has looked fresh and effective. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning Sunday and has retired 13 of the 15 batters he’s faced since being activated. He will play a key role in the second half for a Phillies team in need of setup men.
David Robertson is inching closer, though it’s not a given he will be back by mid-July. A couple bullpen sessions and rehab outings would be necessary first.
Pat Neshek and Seranthony Dominguez are expected back as well. At some point, maybe the Phillies will actually have their entire bullpen healthy at the same time.
“I don't want to pin our struggles and our adversity in the first half on any one area in particular. I just don't think that would tell a complete story,” Kapler said. “However, I do think that the injuries that we've had in our bullpen have been impactful for us, and to some degree I believe that we've weathered the storm.
“More importantly, Robertson coming back, Hunter now being back and kind of the version of himself that we expected, Adam Morgan continuing to look good. I think we're getting closer to what we expected when we set out at the beginning of the season.
“We know that Seranthony is coming back at some point, or we feel confident that Seranthony is coming back at some point, so we can look forward to a stronger bullpen than we've had in the first half.”
Now the entire team, minus All-Star J.T. Realmuto, gets four full days of rest.
As for Kapler, the second-half game-planning has already begun. The first order of business is figuring out whether Nola, who has thrown 216 pitches in his last two starts, will get an extra day or two before his next outing.
“Personally, it’s not the easiest thing for me,” Kapler said of leaving baseball mode for even a few hours, “but I think I’ll get a chance to do some reading, get some rest and relaxation.”
Phillies fans could probably use the rest too. Those first 90 games conjured quite the range of emotions.
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