Mike Morin

Phillies turned to mediocre vets over and over last 2 seasons and got the expected results

Phillies turned to mediocre vets over and over last 2 seasons and got the expected results

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Phillies' acquisition of Jason Vargas two days before the trade deadline was a salary dump by the Mets, but it at least initially looked like a move that could provide the Phils another rotation option for 2020.

It was problematic that they even needed to turn to Vargas as a rotation upgrade, but the 2019 Phillies were ravaged by injuries after wholly misevaluating their starting pitching in the offseason. The topic of injuries came up a few times in the clubhouse after Thursday's 6-3 loss to the Nationals, which completed a five-game sweep for Washington and dropped the Phillies under .500 for the first time all season.

"I don't think we expected it to go this way," catcher Andrew Knapp said. "I think there's a lot of factors that go into that. Injuries and stuff where guys are being put in situations that they normally wouldn't be in if we had a lot of those bullpen arms. Who knows what would've happened? ... I think a healthy Phillies team is definitely in (the race). Everyone in this clubhouse thinks the same thing."

Vargas' last start was not a good one. He allowed five runs and walked five in 4⅓ innings, finishing with a 5.53 ERA in his 11 starts as a Phillie. Keep in mind, he had a 3.27 ERA in his prior 16 starts when he was traded to the Phillies.

Vargas' contract contains a club option for $8 million next season that can be bought out for $2 million. Because the Phillies were going to be on the hook for a couple million bucks, it seemed like Vargas might be able to carve out a spot on the 2020 staff by eating innings. But it hasn't gone well. He allowed four runs or more in seven of 11 starts and the Phillies went 4-7.

The Phillies simply can't keep going to this well of mediocre veteran placeholders. Over the last two seasons, the Phils' front office has been aggressive in the offseason but hesitant to trade any decent pieces for help during the season. This year, GM Matt Klentak timed the Jay Bruce trade well and acquired Corey Dickerson in a shrewd move, but every other trade was for a marginal upgrade and few of the deals worked out.

Of the players the Phillies acquired in-season in 2019, Brad Miller, Bruce and Drew Smyly have the best chances to return. Bruce is under contract next season and Miller has hit his way into a bench role if both sides can figure out a deal. Smyly has been decent as a Phillie with a 4.45 ERA and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings in a dozen starts.

But Vargas, Jared Hughes, Mike Morin, Blake Parker, Nick Vincent, Logan Morrison, Sean Rodriguez, Jose Pirela ... all eminently replaceable pieces. Seems unlikely any of them will be back.

"I think a fully healthy Philadelphia Phillies is an entirely different ballclub than we have right now," Gabe Kapler said. "I don't think anybody can dispute that."

Vargas might have been a fit on the 2020 Phillies if they didn't already have Jake Arrieta occupying a rotation spot. It is unrealistic to expect much more than No. 5 starter production from Arrieta. It is probably unrealistic to expect more than No. 4 starter contributions from Zach Eflin. The starting pitching upgrades need to come somewhere and the ideal places are the Nos. 2 and 3 spots. The Phillies need more horses around Aaron Nola, whether that means a $200 million arm in Gerrit Cole, an aging lefty like Madison Bumgarner or Cole Hamels, or an intriguing, 29-year-old, high-reward option like Zack Wheeler.

“I'd love to be back," Vargas said. "Selfishly, of course, I want to come back. I feel like it is a special group and is just really a few pieces away from having a chance to win the last game of the year. And it would be nice to have another crack at that with these guys. Hopefully, that happens, but it is a business and I understand what goes on. And baseball is going to keep going on.”

Rhys Hoskins made a comment earlier in the week that one of the major reasons the 2019 Phillies fell short was that when the lineup was clicking, the pitching wasn't and vice versa. But in truth, the Phillies' pitching was rarely "on" this season. It's why they played an entire season without winning five straight games. It's why they've lost nine times to the lowly Marlins, who were not at a pitching disadvantage any time they faced a Phillies starter other than Nola.

The Phillies need to win two of their final three games to finish with a better record than last season. They must sweep for their first winning record since 2011.

"I'm not trying to color this rosy," Kapler said. "We just lost five games straight to the Nationals. They kicked our ass. That's the cold, harsh reality of this."

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Few teams can stay in a race with as little relief as Phillies have right now

Few teams can stay in a race with as little relief as Phillies have right now

NEW YORK — Nick Vincent wasn't even here a week ago. Now he's taken walk-off losses in consecutive games for a Phillies team falling fast out of the wild-card race.

After the Phillies mounted a late comeback thanks, again, to J.T. Realmuto, Gabe Kapler turned to Mike Morin and Vincent in the bottom of the ninth and the results were ugly. Morin put runners on the corners with two outs before Vincent hit Jeff McNeil and walked Pete Alonso to force in the game-winning run.

We've spent plenty of time this season lamenting the Phillies' weak rotation. Right now, the bullpen is just as shaky. Sure, Phillies relievers had a 3.75 ERA in the 40 games preceding Friday night, but that ERA was not a result of lights-out, swing-and-miss stuff from the back end of the 'pen. "Smoke and mirrors" may be a bit strong but is closer to explaining the success this bullpen had out of the All-Star break.

Consider that Vincent, Morin and Blake Parker — three of the final four relievers used Friday — were all let go by teams during the season and picked up by the Phillies for free. That fact alone does not mean none of them can be productive for a stretch, but high-quality relievers just do not become available for free. The more they're exposed, the more their flaws show.

Realmuto, who hit the two-run homer off Edwin Diaz to force the bottom of the ninth, felt for Vincent.

"Extremely tough," the catcher said. "I talked to him after the game on the bench, told him not to hang his head because everybody here knows how tough that spot is he just got thrown into. He's thrown three out of four games with a sick day in between. I'm sure he's a little tired, a little worn out. Everybody in this clubhouse knows that's a really tough spot he was just put in."

They can know it, and they can support their teammate, but it won't stop this slide. The Phillies did not lose ground on the Cubs Friday but the Cubs are not the only team to worry about. The Phillies are four behind the Cubs, 1½ games behind the Diamondbacks and now tied with the Brewers and Mets. To earn that second wild-card spot, they will need to outplay all four of those teams over the final 22 games.

"We're not doing what it takes to win games," Realmuto said. "We're playing OK, we're staying in the game but we're not quite finishing it when we need to, you know? We're right there in the last couple innings. Something always seems to happen where we don't get it done pitching, we don't get it done hitting. ... Of course it's frustrating."

Kapler's hands are tied. He can't force guys like Morin, Parker or Vincent to be better. He can't nurse David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan and Victor Arano back to health. He can work with only what he has, and right now that is not nearly enough.

How many teams can remain in a playoff race with two legitimate starting pitchers and one or two reliable high-leverage relievers?

"It's definitely a challenge and one that we have to meet," Kapler said.

The clock has almost expired on a season in which the Phillies have been forced to use more players (55) than any in franchise history.



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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 7⅓ scoreless innings in the two games, including 5⅓ 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 has 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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