Some things really are best seen in person. To those not in attendance for Zach Wheeler's start last Friday night against the Atlanta Braves, his stat line - 7.0IP, 1 ER, 8 K, 2 BB - may appear dominant. But for those inside Citizens Bank, the experience was quite different - a gnawing, collective angst seemed to rise in the crowd whenever Wheeler took the mound, the trepidation a consequence of Wheeler's shaky command, the Braves powerful lineup, and that night's game being a must-win. Wheeler surrendered 9 hits. The crowd felt every one of them.
Overshadowed by the Phillies 5-1 victory, however, was another, more significant moment that only those scattered across the half-empty stadium bore witness to - the point at which Bryce Harper realized that his season was slipping away from him.
It was around 9 p.m., in the bottom of the 5th inning and the Phillies led the Braves 3-1. Harper stood on 1st base, having led off the inning with a single, knowing full well that the Phillies lead should be larger - five runners had been left stranded thus far. So, he stole 2nd base. He advanced aggressively to 3rd on a chopper by Andrew McCutchen. Man on 3rd, 1 out. Rhys Hoskins drew a walk to make it 1st and 3rd, only for Alec Bohm to fly out to the 2nd baseman. Men on 1st and 3rd, 2 outs.
A sickening sense of déjà vu fell over Harper and the crowd alike - they'd coughed up winnable game after winnable game due to the offense's inability to bring baserunners home. It's perhaps the most fitting curse for a team on the edge of success, that sense of getting almost there only for their rallies to fall short time and time again. Their lack of production with runners on base is why they've lost their previous three games - two in New York to the Yankees in which they hit just 3-21 with RISP and left 23 men on base and last night's 7-2 loss to Atlanta where they went 2-11 with RISP and left 8 runners on. It's one of the main reasons that they found themselves with their backs against the wall on Friday night, their status as "buyers" or "sellers" - the fate of their season - on the line. And it's also the reason that citizens bank park wasn't even halfway full during the most crucial stretch of the Phillies season. The Phillies were out of winnable games. They needed to win a game.
And so, with two outs and a season of disappointment staring back at him, Bryce Harper made a decision. He stole home.
While Harper's double-steal of home with Rhys Hoskins didn't wind up being consequential to the Phillies 5-1 victory, his overall performance (2-3, 1 BB, 3 SB) sure was. From my perch high above the field, however, Harper's performance didn't just feel like he had a goodnight - it felt like more than that. It felt like he had made a statement - That the Phillies are worth the price of admission, even if we're fighting a losing battle. Perhaps even because of it.
Of course, the next night the Phillies were decidedly not worth the price of admission when they were embarrassingly blown out by the Braves 15-3. They hit 0-10 with RISP and stranded 11 on the base paths. Maybe Harper's performance on Friday night was just a good night, one of dozens of meaningless "good nights" for him over the course of the 162-game season. Or maybe it was something more - an echo from seasons past, reverberating through the waves of empty blue seats, reminding us of what this team used to be.
Regardless of the ethereal qualities of Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies inability to produce in the clutch could be the thorn that remains in their side long past Friday's trade deadline. In the wake of Aaron Nola's resurgent outing on Sunday and splitting the series with the Braves, the 2nd place Phillies look primed to be "buyers". Dave Dombrowski's main targets? Pitchers - specifically back-end starting depth and a shutdown reliever.
And by all means that's who he should be targeting - the Phillies have more blown saves than saves and with Zach Eflin's injury still lingering, they have only two legitimate starting pitchers in Wheeler and Nola.
The Phillies desperately need their top 3 starters of Wheeler, Nola, Eflin to replicate their first half of the season in which they each topped 100 innings and combined for a 3.56 ERA across 58 starts. They must have improvement from the 4-5 starters if they want to stay within reach of the division - Matt Moore and Spencer Howard's 3 inning outings are certified bullpen killers. This is all without even mentioning the bullpen, that if had just converted saves at a league average rate would have the Phillies atop the division.
For the sake of argument, let's be optimistic and assume that Dombrowski works his magic and remedies many of our pitching woes. A shutdown closer such as Craig Kimbrel shores up the bullpen, Eflin returns from injury, and adequate 4-5 starters are acquired.
The question then becomes what's the worst way to lose? Blowing a late lead is probably the most painful without a doubt and suffering a blowout due to poor starting pitching is embarrassing sure, but there's something worse - not mustering enough offense to even compete in close games. It's games such as last week's series against the Yankees that are the most frustrating, deflating a team like a slow leak in a tire. It's the 0-10 with RISP efforts that pose the biggest threat to the team's playoff chances - for no amount of pitching can win a game in which the offense cannot compete. The bullpen becomes stressed and overused, their availability for higher leverage situations hindered.
As it stands, the Phillies have the 4th worst batting average in MLB with 2 outs and RISP (.208) They rank 2nd in strikeouts (123) and are 16th in RBIs with 2 outs and RISP as well. The Phillies also struggle with runners on in general, ranking 23rd in average, 5th in strikeouts, and 12th in RBIs. Where the Phillies have found success is when they have a runner on 3rd with less than two outs - they rank 3rd in both RBIs and Runs scored.
Let's compare the Phillies 10 game stretch leading into the All-Star break in which they went 7-3 to their last 10 games in which they went 5-5. In this recent stretch the Phillies have left an average of 7.7 runners on base (LOB) compared to the previous 10 game stretch of 5.7 LOB.
So, what happened? Well, several things, but let's start with what we do know.
We do know that the Phillies team that went 7-3 earlier this month didn't strikeout any less or sacrifice bunt any more than the Phillies do now. They didn't steal more bases or have more sacrifice flies - no, they just didn't make the situational mistakes that the Phillies are making now. They didn't strike out as much with RISP -but rather did their best to extend the inning with productive outs.
What's striking is that it's not as if the Phillies are often caught at the bottom of their lineup in clutch situations - it's just that their best hitters haven't been hitting. It happened again on Monday night, where despite McCutchen's walk off home run, the Phillies still went 2-10 with RISP and left nine men on base - just look at the stat line for who batted in those clutch situations ((McCutchen 1-2, Harper 0-1, Realmuto 0-2, Miller 0-1, Herrera 0-1, Hoskins 1-2, Bohm 0-1). Depending on two home runs from McCutchen and Hoskins is a complete roll of the dice and one that doesn't often fall in the Phillies' favor.
And how are the Phillies expected to magically snap out of this funk you might ask?
They're not - well they may, but that's baseball. Offensive production is bound to fluctuate over the course of the season and, like rigging a sail, Girardi must do the little things correctly so that he can harness these gusts of power, intermittent as they are. What Girardi cannot do is sit here like you and me and everybody on the Phillies postgame show and bemoan the team's inability to bring baserunners home. This stagnant approach won't keep J.T. Realmuto from striking out with Bryce Harper on 3rd base.
The answer, in part, lies in thinking outside of the box. Girardi should take a cue from Harper's performance on Friday night, and take advantage of the team's strengths. While the Phillies are tied for 3rd in MLB in Stolen Bases (61), moments in which the game feels truly impacted by the swiping of bags feel few and far between. Monday's victory over the Nationals - despite the poor performance with RISP - might have been a start: a double-steal from Realmuto and Jean Segura set up a perfect scoring opportunity in the 1st and Segura's advancement to 3rd on a wild pitch in the 9th with no outs proceeded McCutchen's walk-off home run.
We know that the Phillies feel comfortable with a man on 3rd base and less than two outs - it's just a point of getting to that situation. Bunting - not just for sacrifice situations but as a creative way to beat the shift should be considered. Aggressive base running maneuvers, like Harper's two-out double steal put the pressure on the defense instead of leaning on a streaky offense. Advanced sabermetrics disputing the correlation between winning and batting average with RISP be damned - this cross your fingers and pray for an RBI routine isn't sustainable for this club. Small-ball, shift beating tactics like bunting for a hit, suicide/safety squeezes, and double-steals should be employed regularly to keep the momentum in the Phillies' favor.
It's through tactics like these that the Phillies have a chance at winning the division - and by proxy, the hearts of so many Philadelphians that have turned cold over these past 10 years. If they can do that, then the Phillies can prove to more than just a small margin of fans that they are in fact best seen in person.