'We're going for it': Phillies gearing up for run at October – and J.T. Realmuto sweepstakes
In a traditional sense, the Philadelphia Phillies have the luxury of time.
Their manager, Joe Girardi, is in his first season in Philly, often a time to assess the present with a longer eye on the future. Last week, Girardi celebrated his 1,000th career victory and was toasted in the clubhouse afterward by franchise player Bryce Harper, who is in just the second season of a 13-year, $330 million contract.
In another sense, time is running out on the Phillies.
Harper may be their best-known player, but J.T. Realmuto is possibly their most valuable. The Phillies forfeited their lone elite pitching prospect in Sixto Sanchez to acquire the All-Star catcher from the Marlins in 2019, and now Sanchez is chucking 99-mph heat at Marlins Park.
Yet Realmuto is a free agent after this season, and few catchers as athletic and dynamic as he ever hit the market. With every home run he slugs – a team-leading nine at the moment – and ball he blocks, the price goes up, even in a pandemic-slowed industry.
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The Phillies have responded with championship level urgency of late, from virtually every corner of the organization.
With a major league-worst bullpen saddling a potent offense and decent rotation, general manager Matt Klentak acquired four relievers in a 10-day span, reinforcing a crumbling unit.
With his average sitting at .200 through one month of the season and his spot in the lineup representing a sinkhole between All-Stars Harper and Realmuto, young slugger Rhys Hoskins figured it all out in a hurry, hitting five home runs to just four strikeouts in a seven-game stretch.
And with his squad fortified, Girardi knows from his days working for the New York Yankees what the only answer is when gifted resources.
“That we’re going for it,” he said. “They’ve given us what they need. Now, it’s on us to play to the best of our ability.”
After muddling to a 9-14 start – borderline disaster in a pandemic-shortened 60-game season – the Phillies have reeled off seven wins in eight games, all against divisional foes Atlanta and Washington, to put them firmly in position to seize one of the National League’s eight playoff berths.
On their seventh attempt, they finally cleared the .500 mark, and now have a chance to not only re-write the narrative of two September fades under old manager Gabe Kapler, but also claim their first division title since 2011 and align a pair of aces – Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler – for a playoff derby that commences Sept. 29.
“We’re getting there,” left fielder Andrew McCutchen said Tuesday night, “and yeah, I’m feeling like this month for us is going to be a big month.”
They will attack September well-equipped.
As an entire industry uncertain how a late trade deadline within the constrains of the novel coronavirus would play out, Klentak kick-started the process. As the Phillies dropped to 9-14 on Aug. 21, he swung a deal for Boston relievers Brandon Workman and Heath Hembree and a waiver trade with the Yankees for David Hale.
The next night, Workman promptly blew a ninth-inning lead against the first-place Braves in his first appearance as a Phillie.
Mercy finally arrived a day later. With Workman on the verge of another collapse against Atlanta, the potential tying run was cut down at the plate on a beautiful 8-6-2 relay from Roman Quinn to Didi Gregorius to catcher And, who lunged at a sliding Dansby Swanson for the final out in the 5-4 nail-biter.
“Sometimes,” Girardi said the next day, “you feel like maybe the worm has turned a little bit.”
And so it had.
After that game, the Phillies bullpen was at a low point. Its ERA was a major league-worst 8.00, eons behind even the 29th-place Red Sox’s 5.75. Opponents were hitting an absurd .350 against their relievers (By contrast, the Dodgers’ bullpen was allowing a .181 average).
Oh, the Phillies are still last in most major relief categories. But they’ve shaved nearly a run off their unit’s ERA – it’s down to 7.09 – thanks to the reinforcements and a renewed belief in the holdovers and the reinforcements.
Veteran Tommy Hunter allowed 13 baserunners and five earned runs in his first eight innings, but just four hits and walks and no runs in his four outings since. Hector Neris, who has long possessed the stuff to hold down the closer’s role, pitched into what Girardi believed was some bad luck early on before posting three consecutive scoreless outings.
And finally, hours before the trade deadline, Klentak added the last piece – David Phelps, a Girardi reliable from the Yankee days.
“As notable as anything, Tommy Hunter and Hector Neris are much different pitchers than they were a couple weeks ago,” Klentak said after acquiring Phelps from the Brewers. “This was a continuation of what we started 10 days ago, to patch up what was a weakness for us.
“And now our offense is clicking and scoring runs, our starters have been pretty good and we have a much deeper bullpen than we did a couple weeks ago.”
Indeed, a combination of capital expenditures and player development have given the Phillies a lengthy, daunting alignment.
'Pick your poison'
Harper, suddenly in his age-27 season, is chugging along as one would imagine, with seven homers and a 1.012 OPS. McCutchen is back from a torn ACL. Shortstop Didi Gregorius is one of six players with at least five home runs.
And rookie Alec Bohm, the third overall pick in 2018, has hammered the ball in a 16-game sample, averaging 90.5 mph in exit velocity while posting an .856 OPS.
“There really isn’t a break,” says Hoskins of an offense averaging 5.6 runs per game. “We’ve seen in the last week it’s kind of a pick-your-poison kind of thing.
“Rest assured, the opposing team knows that.”
Hoskins, 27, was the last piece to fall into place. Always a streaky hitter, he went homerless for the first 16 games and 53 plate appearances this season. In the overheated sample of a 60-game season, that’s cause for alarm.
But Girardi and others are quick to credit new hitting coach Joe Dillon – nabbed from Washington, where he was lauded by Juan Soto and others – for keeping Hoskins’ and other’s minds right.
“There were times of frustration,” says Girardi of Hoskins, who has boosted his OPS from .741 to .962 in eight games. “You can go back a couple weeks ago and we’d say, ‘Rhys, you’re doing great. Your numbers are good. It’s not the power and the RBI you want, but I’m telling you, you’re really doing your job.’ And you’re starting to see the dividends.”
Nola and Wheeler, who received a $118 million contract in December, are Cy Young-caliber pitchers under contract through 2023 and ’24, respectively, and have held up their end of the bargain this year, allowing one or no earned runs over at least six innings in eight of their 12 starts.
All of which positions the Phillies extremely well for this year and far beyond. Which brings us back to Realmuto.
Harper has been borderline obsessed with him for years, lobbying for the Nationals to trade for him as far back as 2018 and now, joining a chorus of Philly fans in the “Sign J.T.” movement. Klentak is admittedly in an odd spot, knowing Realmuto would be wise to play the year out and test free agency, but also needing to send signals that the Phillies would really, really like to retain him.
In a video call Monday, Klentak only went so far as to confirm the Phillies have been in touch with Realmuto’s camp since the start of summer camp in July.
“I am not going to talk publicly about our discussions with J.T. Because J.T. has asked for that,” says Klentak. “We’re going to keep this out of the public.”
In a perfect world for both parties, Realmuto – a two-time All-Star with an .889 OPS this year - uses October as a platform for his excellence and the Phillies play deep into the month.
The latter outcome only keeps gaining steam.
“That’s our goal, that’s what we’re going to do until someone tells us we can’t,” says Hunter, who played on pennant-winning teams in Texas and Cleveland that lost in the World Series. This team wants to win. Really bad. And so do I. I have three runner-up rings sitting in a coat closet. I want to win.
“So does everybody else.”