Can the Phillies compete for the playoffs with a defense like this? Can they win, say, 85 games? There's plenty of room for skepticism more than 40 percent of the way into the season.
Friday night in San Francisco, they had another sloppy inning and it led to three Giants runs in the second inning of a 5-3 loss. One scored on a catchable line drive off of Rhys Hoskins’ glove, another on a passed ball by Andrew Knapp. The Hoskins play was ruled a hit. It’s not just the Phillies' error total, it’s the volume of those kinds of plays — 50-50 calls left up to the official scorer, balls that drop in front of outfielders or that aren’t reached because of range limitations.
It was known coming into the season that the Phillies would not be a great defense. What they needed and still need to do is play sound and fundamental defense, make the plays they should make. They've fallen short to this point, largely because they do not have many plus defenders. J.T. Realmuto is among the best at his position defensively and Ronald Torreyes has solidified shortstop with Didi Gregorius out but that's it.
The other killer in this game was Vince Velasquez’ two-out walk of pitcher Johnny Cueto in the fourth, a half-inning after Andrew McCutchen tied the game with a two-run homer. With nobody aboard, Velasquez walked Cueto on five pitches and LaMonte Wade followed with a triple that put the Giants ahead for good. Losing concentration in that spot against the opposing pitcher is the kind of mistake Velasquez is prone to and always seems to pay for.
"It was his command all night but that’s a big one," manager Joe Girardi said of the walk to Cueto. "His command was not good tonight."
The Phillies are 33-34, in second place in the NL East and 4½ games behind the Mets. They’re seven back in the loss column. The Braves are three games under .500, the Nationals are four under and the Marlins are nine under. The division is far from decided.
But the Phillies have played 67 games, no longer a small sample size. A lot of teams are what they are at this point. The Phils' offense hasn’t clicked for more than a couple of days in a row, there haven’t been sustained stretches of high-quality pitching and none of it has been able to outweigh the defense. They’ve dealt with injuries, but not as many or as crushing as the NL East leaders.
As for Gabe Kapler’s Giants, they have the best record in baseball at 45-25. Few saw this coming. Their vets look rejuvenated, they have a Cy Young candidate in Kevin Gausman (8-1, 1.51), a good bullpen and a knack for winning close games. Kapler is 74-56 managing the Giants. Girardi is 61-66 with the Phils.
The Phillies did some early damage against Cueto. Odubel Herrera led off the game with a missile over the center-field wall, and McCutchen hit a two-run shot to right-center.
Since being moved out of the leadoff spot and into a run-producing role, McCutchen is 15 for 49 (.306) with five home runs, four doubles and 14 RBI in 15 games.
Herrera has hit .308 over his last 37 games with an OPS approaching .900.
Bryce Harper saw the ball well. He singled twice and scorched a ball right to Brandon Crawford at short. One of the singles was a long drive off the left-field wall and Harper was thrown out at second by Wade. Harper, who has dealt with injuries to his back, shoulder and wrist this season, has not been running hard out of the box lately. He was halfway to first on the grounder to Crawford and watched the long flyball for a few seconds before busting it to second. Given how Harper approaches the game, it would seem to be more about the nagging injuries than a lack of aggression.
"One thing you can always do in this game is run hard," Girardi said.
The Phillies have Aaron Nola (5-4, 3.69) going Saturday afternoon against left-hander Alex Wood (6-3, 3.71), who has a funky delivery and can be a pain in the neck. Nola is coming off of his best start in two months and looking to win consecutive outings for the second time all season.