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Have we been too hard on the Phillies?

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It’s been frustrating to be a Phils fan this season.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe we should all take a step back.

After winning two out of three against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates this week in Philadelphia, the Phillies are two games out of the wild card, trailing the Chicago Cubs, a team they swept in a three-game series a couple weeks ago.

You remember how that one ended, right?

Entering the off-day Thursday, the Phillies are 69-63. They were once 33-22, but have played five games under .500 since May 30. They have dealt with a number of headwinds, including a season-ending injury to Andrew McCutchen, a suspension to their Opening Day center fielder Odubel Herrera, the loss of Jake Arrieta to bone spurs and a catastrophic cascade of injuries to their bullpen.

At the beginning of the season, many (myself included) predicted them to win the NL East and finish with 90-92 wins. Instead, they are on pace for 85. Is that surprising given the losses they’ve suffered?

Or, to cut to the quick, has Gabe Kapler done a better job with this team than he’s been given credit for? At least one national baseball writer thinks so.

Like everything else about this team, it’s complicated.

The starting rotation failed them. After a rough start, Aaron Nola has been great, but Nick Pivetta was an utter disaster and is down in Lehigh Valley for the second time this year. Vince Velasquez has shown spurts of productivity, but only five innings at a time. After an All-Star performance the first two months of the season, Zach Eflin has been very down, shuttling between the rotation and the bullpen. None of the Triple-A guys has produced, although no one other than Jerad Eickhoff has gotten a legitimate chance. The Phils traded for Jason Vargas, and he’s posted a 4.34 ERA in his five starts with the Phillies, although the eye test tells you he’s been better than that. Drew Smyly has a 4.97 ERA in his seven starts with the Phils. They’re holding it all together with Scotch tape.

The offense has been inconsistent. No one has gotten hot together. The Phils fired hitting coach John Mallee and replaced him with Charlie Manuel, but not much has changed. Rhys Hoskins may finally be emerging from a two month slump that bordered on the ridiculous.

The bullpen has seen 29 different pitchers throw a baseball for them this season (including position players Aaron Altherr, Roman Quinn and Sean Rodriguez).

There has been controversy over hustling and benchings and bullpen usage and calling fans “entitled” and everything else that goes into a team that fails to meet lofty expectations. But were our expectations too high?

What’s made the 2019 season so disappointing is not that the Phillies have struggled to deal with injuries, because some shrewd moves by GM Matt Klentak this summer (signing Corey Dickerson and Jay Bruce, trading for Vargas, acquiring Blake Parker and Mike Morin) have helped stem the tide. What’s made it disappointing is watching the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals zoom by the Phillies in the standings, with no indication that the Phils are ready to close the gap. Heck, even the New York Mets overtook the Phillies for a short stretch, although they have come back down to earth.

That the Phils are in the playoff hunt is not an indication that this team is overachieving, rather, it’s the rest of the National League that is underachieving right along with them. The Cubs are just 71-61 and can’t win on the road (27-39). The Brewers (68-65) have worse starting pitching than the Phils, and the Mets (67-65) are, well, the Mets.

If the Phils were in the American League, they’d be trailing in the wild card by seven games, but that doesn’t mean much. In recent seasons, the NL wild card winner hasn’t cleared 90 victories. In 2016, the Giants got in with 87 wins, and in ‘17 the Rockies made the wild card game with that same number.

While the criticism the team has received this season is fair, it has at times gone too far. This team does not “suck.” They are not “terrible.” But it is infuriating to see them beat quality clubs like the Cubs and Red Sox only to watch them throw away opportunities to beat up on bad teams like the Padres and Marlins.

The Phillies have one more month to win the fanbase over and get back to postseason baseball for the first time in eight years. If they do that, no matter what we thought of the first five months of the season, 2019 will be remembered fondly.

On Episode 314 of Hittin’ Season, I talked about this with KYW Newsradio’s Dave Uram. We also discussed the controversies with Cesar Hernandez and Sean Rodriguez and recapped the series victory against the Pirates.