By Harry Allison
Close your eyes and imagine the Phillies are a half-game out of first place in the NL East.
Now, open your eyes!
Forty-one of 162 games were in the books and the Phillies are 24-17, boasting as many wins as any team in baseball except the Chicago Cubs.
“Our confidence is through the roof,” said catcher Cameron Rupp, who hit a two-run single in yesterday’s 4-2 win.
“We believe we can continue to do this throughout the season,” said Tyler Goeddel, who hit his first major-league home run in another three-hit game.
“It’s crazy, but hey, why not?” manager Pete Mackanin said. “We’re playing well. We’re pitching well. We’re playing good defense. We’re getting just enough runs to win. I’ll take it every time.”
The season is still early, but this sample size is growing larger, and all of the close wins seem to be just as much merit-based as rooted in luck. David Hernandez, Hector Neris and Gomez combined for three more scoreless innings Wednesday. Gomez leads the majors with 16 saves and 21 games finished. Neris leads the majors with 11 holds. Neris (33) and Hernandez (30) are first and second among National League relievers in strikeouts.
“Give us a lead, we feel like we’re not going to give up a run,” Hernandez said of that bullpen trio. “That’s the way the thought process needs to be.”
Hernandez, who pitched two years in Baltimore and four in Arizona before joining the Phillies this past offseason, said he’s never been part of a bullpen that has locked down this many close, early-season leads. A unit that looked shaky entering the year has held leads for its starting pitchers and did so again Wednesday after Jeremy Hellickson rebounded from a long first inning to deliver a quality start.
“I don’t think to this extent,” Hernandez said when asked if he could recall being involved in so many low-scoring, close games. “I feel like every time we go in and win a game, it’s by one. We’re locked in, but it’s only May, so we’ll see.”
Not that he’d say anything different, but Mackanin thinks the Phillies’ success to this point is sustainable because of their starting pitching, bullpen and defense.
“This Miami team has a real good lineup,” he said. “So do the Mets, so does Washington. And we’ve held our own against all of those teams. There’s no reason for me to believe we can’t continue to do that. Now, once again, we want more offense. Hopefully, little by little, the guys that we have here will improve. And if we make any additions, that will help. But that’s the only way I look at it. I think it is [sustainable].”
The Phillies are 13-8 against the NL East. Their series records are 2-0 against the Marlins, 1-0 against the Braves and 1-1 against both the Nationals and Mets. The Phils are 9-4 in 13 total series this season; it took them 65 additional games last season before they won their ninth series.
They’ve almost completely shut down Stanton this year. He had a 490-foot, game-winning home run off Neris in Miami back on May 6, but aside from that he’s 0 for 17 against the Phillies with 12 strikeouts in 2016. Holding Stanton down is a major key to any series against the Marlins and this week was no different.
“It’s a testament to our pitching. You can’t make mistakes to him,” Mackanin said. “And I don’t think we made one mistake to him the whole series. We made quality pitches in all of his at-bats. It’s not easy to do, and our guys did it.”
Hellickson struck Stanton out swinging all three times he faced him. By allowing two runs over six innings, Hellickson improved to 4-2 with a 3.99 ERA. He has 50 strikeouts and 13 walks in 49 2/3 innings. He’s pitching like a man who could either fetch the Phillies a prospect at the trade deadline or be part of a rotation that tries to do the unthinkable and stay in the race through the summer.
Three, four runs are winning the Phillies a lot of games. Before Goeddel’s solo homer in the eighth provided insurance, the Phils plated all three of their runs in the third inning on an Andres Blanco RBI double and a two-run single by Rupp. It wasn’t much, but again it was enough.
“It’s like a broken record,” Mackanin said, “and I’m happy that record is broken.”