Phillies headed home for huge series on winning note after beating Blue Jays

Phillies headed home for huge series on winning note after beating Blue Jays

TORONTO – The Phillies arrived at Rogers Centre on Sunday morning with heightened intensity.

And what caused it?

“The losses,” Rhys Hoskins said matter-of-factly.

The kid had a point.

The Phillies had lost six of their previous seven games – including an awful one Saturday in which they blew a five-run lead -- entering their series finale with the Toronto Blue Jays. Time is a-ticking in this pennant race and the Phillies, with just 32 games to play, need wins.

They got one thanks to an ensemble effort of starting pitching, bullpen work and power hitting (see First Take).

Hoskins, Carlos Santana, Maikel Franco and Wilson Ramos all clubbed home runs to lead an 8-3 win over the Jays. The victory left the Phillies at 70-60 and three games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East as they head home for three games with Washington beginning Monday night. The Nats took two of three from the Phillies in Washington last week. The Phils then lost the first two in Toronto before Sunday’s win.

“There was just a little bit more intensity today, a little sharper focus,” Hoskins said. “I think everybody got here this morning and realized that this was a big game. They’re all big but this particular one felt a little bigger after a tough loss (Saturday).

“It was a tough road trip. It was important to get a win before we get back home and hopefully start some momentum. Obviously, we play really well at home. To get a win the way that we did, we came out hot, we swung the bats well early and Vinnie (Velasquez) gave us what we needed right there. He pitched with a lead really well.”

Hoskins and Santana belted back-to-back homers against Marco Estrada in the first inning and Franco smacked a two-run homer in the third to give the Phils built a 5-0 lead. There was hardly comfort attached to that lead as the Phillies blew a similar lead the day before.

This time, manager Gabe Kapler didn’t take any chances on his starter being able to lock down the lead. Velasquez pitched five innings of two-run ball and that was enough. The bullpen followed with four innings of one-run ball. Hector Neris struck out three batters in the seventh. He is an improved and more confident pitcher since coming back from Triple A. He has faced 24 hitters since returning and has struck out 15. He has walked just one.

Seranthony Dominguez also pitched an inning. He protected a big lead in the ninth and struck out two. Dominguez had a rough day in Saturday’s loss and Kapler’s use of the right-hander was a confidence-building exercise.

“He went out there and dominated,” Kapler said. “He made us feel like he's ready to go back into a big spot.”

The Phillies have won just seven of their last 19 games. They blew two 4-1 leads in Washington last week and a five-run lead Saturday. But over the span, the offense has been an issue. The club came into Sunday’s game having averaged just 3.6 runs in its previous 18 games. One of the big issues with the offense has been not scoring tag-on runs late in games to allow the bullpen some breathing room.

That was not an issue Sunday, thanks to Hoskins, Santana and Ramos. Cesar Hernandez walked in the eighth inning, moved to third on a hit by Hoskins and scored on a sacrifice fly by Santana. Ramos followed with a two-run homer.

Ramos finished the day with four hits — two singles, a double and a homer — and three RBIs. He is 12 for 25 with seven extra-base hits and eight RBIs in six games with his new club.

“The runs at the end were the exclamation point to today and, I think, this road trip,” Hoskins said. “When you get runs late in games, they seem to carry over to the next day. We’re hoping that that carries over to the whole homestand.”

The Phillies will face some difficult starting pitching against Washington. The Nats will send Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez to the mound. The Phillies will counter with Zach Eflin, Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.

It’s a hugely important series and a hugely important homestand with the Chicago Cubs also visiting.

The Phillies have good vibes at home — they are 41-22 at Citizens Bank Park — and that can’t hurt as they try to stay with the Braves and make sure the Nationals stay where they are.

“I don’t think our feeling has changed,” Hoskins said. “September baseball is what we’re looking at right now. We know we play the division a lot and if we play — I think Jake Arrieta said it a couple nights ago — if we play better baseball, if we play good baseball, we’re going to be right where we want to be come the last 10 days of the season.”

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2019 Red Sox should provide Phillies valuable lesson about starting pitching

2019 Red Sox should provide Phillies valuable lesson about starting pitching

The 2018 Red Sox went wire to wire and won the World Series. The 2019 Red Sox have a 5 percent chance to make the playoffs because of how brutal their starting rotation has been. 

A rotation that the Phillies and any other team in need of several starting pitchers should take note of.

The Red Sox allocated more than $90 million to their starting pitchers this season, the most in baseball in terms of total dollars and percentage of payroll dedicated to starting pitchers (40 percent).

They extended Chris Sale in March (five years, $145 million), just before his worst major-league season which is already over because of an elbow injury. Sale's deal kicks in next year, and the Red Sox won't admit it but they're almost certainly regretting it already.

They paid Nate Eovaldi $68 million this past offseason and have gotten nothing in return. Eovaldi, who received that contract only because of 22 dominant innings in the 2018 postseason, has been a disaster. Injuries have limited him to just 36⅓ innings and he has struggled as a starter and reliever to the tune of a 6.69 ERA.

Rick Porcello, in the last of a four-year, $82.5 million contract, won the Cy Young award in the first year of that deal and has been bad ever since. His ERA is 5.49 this season and is three percent below league-average the last three years. 

Boston doesn't win the 2018 World Series without David Price. But what if Price's contract, which pays him $96 million the next three seasons, along with the rest of these deals prevent the Red Sox from retaining Mookie Betts? Betts will want more money than Bryce Harper and deserves it. That situation will be interesting to monitor.

Going out and buying a rotation does not always work, and it almost never works long-term. Think about what happened with Roy Halladay. Two great years the Phillies probably would not trade for anything, then two rough years. Cliff Lee? Three very good years upon his return, then he was MIA the final two seasons.

Good pitchers are certainly worth a lot of money but it has to be the right pitcher and the right contract length. Gerrit Cole, a free agent this winter, could command $200 million and his market will be robust. Teams will be tantalized by his continued improvement and insane strikeout rate, which is the perfect way to combat the juiced ball.

But after Cole, no other pitcher on the free-agent market this winter can really be considered a "safe" bet. Confident in Madison Bumgarner the next four years? Cole Hamels the next two? Will a team have any idea which version of Zack Wheeler, Wade Miley, Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi or Alex Wood they are getting?

Not to say the Phillies should avoid the starting pitching market. They cannot. It's not even an option. They need 60 percent of a starting rotation and probably more than that since few teams ever go through 162 games with the same five starters. 

But going out and spending $200 million on Cole, $40 million on Hamels and another $40 million or so on one of the mid-rotation pieces will not guarantee that the Phillies turn into a 95-win team in 2020. 

The Red Sox best starting pitcher this season has been Eduardo Rodriguez, a 26-year-old, cost-controlled lefty they acquired from the Orioles at the 2014 trade deadline for a half-season of Andrew Miller. That's the kind of trade no team in the Orioles' position ever wants to make anymore, because the Rodriguezes of the world, if they pan out, become the most valuable pieces in baseball. Young, cheap arms without wear and tear who can approach 200 quality innings.

The Phillies need to find their Rodriguez — none of Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin or Vince Velasquez turned into one — as much as they need to sign a recognizable name. Splurging on Cole seems unlikely only because the Phillies just committed more than $400 million last offseason and if they sign Cole, it would limit the number of times they can add another superstar during this window.

The Padres, who were just in town, had a couple intriguing arms the Phillies should (and probably will) call about this winter: lefty Joey Lucchesi and righty Dinelson Lamet. San Diego has a lot of young pitching but is in need of offense at positions other than first base, shortstop and third base. 

Pittsburgh's Joe Musgrove is another mid-rotation piece under cost control who could better help a team like the Phillies than the Pirates.

As thin as the Phillies are on pitchers, they must be creative this offseason, not just free-spending.

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Phillies cannot afford letup in Miami after collection of castoffs stands tall in Boston

Phillies cannot afford letup in Miami after collection of castoffs stands tall in Boston

BOSTON – Raise your hand if you saw this coming.

Keep it up if you saw it coming like this.

Not many of you, huh?

The Boston Red Sox might not be having the season they envisioned as they languish in third place in the American League East, but they are still the defending World Series champions and they still have plenty of thunder sticks in their bat rack. They entered Wednesday leading the majors in batting average (.276) and were third in runs per game (5.78) and fourth in OPS (.827).

This was the offense the Phillies had to stop during a two-day visit to Fenway Park.

This was the offense the Phillies did stop.

The Phils completed a rousing two-game interleague sweep of the Sox with a 5-2 win on Wednesday night. The Phils beat the Sox, 3-2, on Tuesday night.

Two wins while scoring just eight runs. Take a bow, pitching staff.

“I remember what it's like to play here and how difficult it is for a team to come in and beat this team in the middle of the summer,” Phillies manager and former Red Sox player Gabe Kapler said. “Defending world champions. More specifically, it's one of the best lineups in baseball and something we're really paying close attention to. Our pitchers did a good job for two days straight. Our bullpen, in particular, was excellent.”

The Phillies’ bullpen has been ravaged by injuries. Just rattle off the names – Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Edubray Ramos, Victor Arano – of those who have gone down. In their stead, the team is using starters who’ve lost their spot in the rotation, guys who have spent significant time in the minors this season and a handful of castoffs from other organizations.

So many of them came up big in this series. So many of them came up big Wednesday night. The bullpen delivered 7 1/3 scoreless innings in the two games, including 5 1/3 in relief of Drew Smyly on Wednesday night.

Jared Hughes, Ranger Suarez, Mike Morin and Jose Alvarez all delivered scoreless work in setting up Hector Neris for his 23rd save.

Hughes got a huge ground ball from defending AL MVP Mookie Betts to pitch out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth. Morin struck out Betts (for the second night in a row) in the seventh, Alvarez got the game’s biggest out (a strikeout of Chris Owings) with runners on second and third in a two-run game to end the eighth.

So many big performances from the often-maligned Phillies’ bullpen. And so many of these guys weren’t even a twinkle in Kapler’s eye a few weeks ago. 

Morin, who has pitched scoreless ball in 11 of 13 appearances with the Phils, was on his way to going on waivers before the Phillies snagged him in a cash deal from Minnesota. Hughes was plucked off waivers from the Reds last week. Suarez is a rookie working as a reliever for the first time in his career. Alvarez joined the Phillies from Anaheim in a nondescript trade for Luis Garcia over the winter.

These unheralded relievers, castoffs from other clubs in some case, were the Phillies’ lifeline in this series.

“I think that when that happens, players can get a chip on their shoulder,” Kapler said. “They can have something to prove. They can say, 'I'm going to prove you wrong for either trading me, DFAing me, sending me down.' And that can bring out the best performance, especially with guys who have done it for several years in the past like Morin has, like (another castoff Blake) Parker has, like Alvarez has. And like Hughes has.”

Is getting let go by another club a motivator?

“I try to not be vindictive,” Hughes said. “I try to focus on winning today. At the same time, it is eye-opening because it lets you know there’s things you need to work on to get better. That’s where I need to be. When you’re vindictive, you lose focus.”

Alvarez is one of the few Phillies relievers who have withstood the test of time this season. He has been an unsung difference-maker in the bullpen.

“I don’t care if I get noticed,” he said. “I’m just trying to help the team. When they need me, I’ll be there.”

The Phillies didn’t hit a ton in this series. They had just 13 hits, but they made them count. Bryce Harper (two-run homer) and Corey Dickerson (RBI triple and RBI single in the final three innings) had big hits Wednesday night. Harper also made a huge play in the field. Red Sox fans heckled him mercilessly. Kapler even took note of it before Harper’s two-run homer in the fifth.

“They were on him pretty good up until that moment,” Kapler said. “That was a pretty explosive moment for the dugout celebration. I'm really happy for Bryce to be able to come up big in that moment.” 

The Phillies are six games over .500 and two back in the NL wild-card race.

Now they face a very interesting weekend – three games in Miami against the NL’s worst team. The Phils are just 6-7 against the Marlins this season.

With just 36 games left, the Phils need to clean up on the Marlins. A poor showing in Miami after a sweep in Boston would be like drowning in the bathtub after a successful swim across the English Channel and the Phils can’t afford for that to happen.

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