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Cutch ado about nothing: Phillies 6, Nationals 5

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The Phillies have played plenty of tragedies and more than one comedy of errors this season, so it was nice to watch a game with a happy ending.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies
If baseball be the food of love, play on!
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The plays of William Shakespeare are all divided into five acts, as are the plays of all Elizabethan playwrights. However, it was not the playwrights themselves who developed this convention. Rather, it was critics and scholars who later imposed that structure upon the plays. One such scholar was the German writer Gustav Freytag, who argued that nearly all plays could fit into a five-act structure. These were the five acts he theorized:

  • The Exposition
  • The Rising Action
  • The Climax
  • The Falling Action
  • The Resolution

When Gustav Freytag developed this theory, he was referring to the works of the great European playwrights of the past centuries and not the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, and yet, his formula actually works quite well to describe the Phillies game that took place in the evening of July 26, 2021. Let me explain.

Act 1: The Exposition

The setting is Citizen’s Bank Park. The characters are the Phillies and the Nationals, but really, it’s just the Phillies. The main conflict in this game is not between Philadelphia and Washington, but between the Phillies and themselves. Could Spencer Howard maintain his velocity for more than three innings and finally pitch deep enough into a game to give his team a real chance to win? And could the hitters perform like the top-tier offense they’re supposed to be, or would they make yet another pitcher with a career 4.20 ERA look like an ace?

Act 2: The Rising Action

Things started out well for the Phillies. Over the first three innings, Spencer Howard looked as good as he ever has. His velocity was up around 95-97 MPH, and he was keeping his pitch count low. He finished the first by striking out Juan Soto on a a 96 MPH fastball at the bottom of the zone, showing exactly why he was the Phillies’ top prospect for so long. (And yes, that pitch was in the zone, despite what Soto seemed to think.)

The offense had a nice start to the game too. They loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the first, thanks to back-to-back singles by Jean Segura and J.T. Realmuto, and a walk by Andrew McCutchen. Realmuto’s single was particularly fun, and it might just be my favourite infield hit of the season. He slapped a tiny tapper up the first base line that was fielded by first baseman Josh Bell. It looked like an easy out, but Bell let his guard down and allowed the fastest catcher in baseball beat him to the bag.

Surely, Realmuto’s single was a sign that this would be a good game for the Phillies. But unfortunately, the good feelings rapidly faded away.

Act 3: The Climax

As quickly as the Phillies had set up for a big inning, they lost everything they had worked towards. Jean Segura got thrown out at home trying to score on a weak fly ball off the bat of Rhys Hoskins. I’ll let you decide if Soto made an excellent throw or if Segura made a mistake to run. Personally, I think the answer is both. But whether it was poor base running by Segura or strong defense by Soto, the end result was the same – the inning was over and the Phillies did not score.

Things got worse in the top of the fourth inning. Spencer Howard, who had looked so good for the first three innings, was starting to falter. His velocity dropped significantly from the first inning to the fourth – his first three fastballs of the night averaged more than 95 MPH, while his final three fastballs averaged just over 92 MPH. All of a sudden, the Nationals lineup was hitting the ball off of him like he was throwing batting practice. Howard faced six batters in the fourth inning and allowed five hits, including back-to-back triples to Josh Bell and Josh Harrison. In a matter of minutes, Howard had turned from an ace to a pumpkin. And that’s when the horseman of the apocalypse walked onto the field.

Joe Girardi, Caleb Cotham, and head athletic trainer Paul Buchheit all made their way out of the dugout. This wasn’t a normal mound visit or pitching change. Something was wrong. As it turned out, Spencer Howard had re-opened a blister on his finger and was no longer able to pitch. At this moment, those paying close attention might have noticed a sour smell start to waft through the air.

And that’s when Brandon Kintzler entered the ball game.

Truth be told, Brandon Kintzler was not actually that bad tonight. He gave up two hits and allowed an inherited runner to score, but he got the Phillies out of the inning and didn’t let the game get out of hand. Nevertheless, Brandon Kinztler entering the game represented something significant – Joe Girardi was all but giving up.

Brandon Kintzler has been one of the worst relief pitchers in baseball this season. He has a 6.83 ERA and the Phillies have lost the majority of the games he has appeared in. When I saw Kintzler walking out of the bullpen, my heart sank and I wanted to turn off the TV. The Phillies were going to lose.

Act 4: The Falling Action

And for the next 4.5 innings, it certainly seemed that way. Rhys Hoskins made things a little more interesting with a gorgeous three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning, but even after the home run the Phillies were still losing, and the bats promptly went back to sleep.

The bullpen kept things in check, pitching a total of 5.1 innings and only allowing one run, but it wasn’t an easy task. Connor Brogdon looked sharp in his one inning of work, needing only fourteen pitches to retire the side. After that, however, Jose Alvarado and Hector Neris combined to allow five walks, and it was a miracle they didn’t allow any more runs. In the top of the ninth inning, Archie Bradley loaded the bases and allowed a run to score thanks in part to a fielding error by Didi Gregorius.

As I said, the bullpen was fine tonight, but they never gave me much confidence that the Phillies could win this one.

Act 5: The Resolution

After Archie Bradley finished off the top of the ninth inning, the Phillies had three more outs to try and win this ball game. The top of the order was due up, but it was hard to believe they could score the necessary three runs. Scoring two runs would have tied the game up and sent things to extras, but Chase Anderson was warming up in the bullpen at that point, so the Phillies really needed to end things then and there if they wanted to win.

The pitcher on the mound was Brad Hand, who has a career 2.88 ERA against the Phillies and 20 saves this season, almost as many as the entire Phillies bullpen combined. The Nationals win expectancy at this point was more than 90%.

But then Jean Segura hit a lead-off double and Bryce Harper walked for the third time of the game. One pitch later, Andrew McCutchen was sending the ball into the right field seats and the game was over. The Phillies had won.

McCutchen jumped for joy as he ran the bases, and I realized that the game was not a tragedy as I had expected, but in fact it was a comedy. And like all good Shakespearean comedies, it ended with a wetting.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The next game is Tuesday night at 7:05pm, and the Phillies will try to win a matchup with Matt Moore on the mound and half the bullpen unavailable. Sounds like another drama waiting to happen.