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May 21, 2019

Al Morganti: Gabe Kapler has Phillies expecting to contend for rest of season

Memorial Day weekend is looming straight ahead, and the Philadelphia Phillies are showing every sign that they will be alive and kicking four months from now at Labor Day weekend.

Getting ahead of the game?

Indeed, but the Phillies and manager Gabe Kapler have been hitting a whole lot or the right notes through the early season. Hitting those notes is even more impressive because this is not the case of a team leading its division due to a roster of players on a roll.

In fact, the Phillies division lead has been accumulated despite the fact that Bryce Harper stumbled through a horrific batting slump, center fielder Odubel Herrera has been lost in a haze of sloppy play, staff ace Aaron Nola muddled through a slow start, Jake Arrieta is a notch below what is expected and the bullpen has been uneven.

Give Kapler much credit for his management of the roster, and general manager Matt Klentak for the off season additions beyond Harper. The play of Jean Segura at shortstop and catcher JT Realmuto have strengthened the nucleus of the team. Realmuto has provided a big bat in recent wins, including a pinch hit blast over the weekend.

The Phillies had a huge win at Chicago in a wild game on Monday night, but if you rewind to the weekend you can appreciate a big turnaround series in Philadelphia against the Colorado Rockies.

Coming into the series the Phillies had just been hammered in a four-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers, losing three of four games at home. The fan base was becoming at least a little bit concerned about Harper as his batting average dipped toward the .200 level, and an extended losing streak at home could have sent things sideways.

Instead, Harper hit a Yo Mama home run over the batter’s eye to secure one victory and the Phillies swept the three-game series to salvage the home stand. It was even sweeter that Harper had consecutive days with huge hits, and the Phillies won yet another series.

Going into Chicago the Phillies had won or tied 12 of 15 series, and that is a pretty good recipe for long-term success. The Phillies can stumble in the first game of a series, and then come back to take the next two.

The bounce back is the sign of a mature team, and a team that does not allow a setback to set them back for long. It is also a sign that Kapler has done a very good job of managing the locker room.

Kapler came into this season with very little wiggle room. After the money spent to acquire talent there was not going to be any time to ramp up toward better days. The demand to be a factor from the start of the season was hanging above the team from Clearwater.

Kapler was given the keys to a sports car and told to step on the gas pedal.

Kapler also came in with the baggage from last season when the fans got tired of his Pollyanna approach. No matter how bad things got with the Phillies at the end of the season, Kapler would appear after a game and see the silver lining.

It was an approach that has never played well in Philadelphia. In fact, it was an approach that probably would not have played well in ANY city, but it went over even worse in Philly where the fans wearied of the baseball fortunes.

Naturally, the biggest piece to all of this is named Harper, and following a hot start at the plate he went cold. Ironically, the cold spell turned into a plus on a couple of levels.

First of all, the whole team did not follow him down the slump trail. Secondly, there was no panic on the part of Harper or Kapler. There was a minor tweak of moving Harper up a spot in the batting order, but for the most part it was a case of “what, us worry?”

The bigger part of the equation was Harper’s play in the outfield while he was struggling at the plate. Harper made up for some of his deficiencies at the plate with crucial plays in the field. Ironically, Harper’s defense was supposed to be a weak suit, but he made several big plays in the outfield to save games.

Harper continued that trend with a huge play on Monday night in Chicago with a laser throw from right field to cut down a run.

You can’t ask for much more as the team heads toward Memorial Day, and as the season starts to hit its middle the front office will have to address some issues to keep the track clear toward the post season.

With Scott Kingery back and apparently able to play center field, the Phils should be preparing to seek a trade for Herrera and add an outfielder in case Andrew McCutcheon struggles. There should also be the addition of a relief pitcher (named Craig Kimbrel or not) and a left-handed pitcher.

It seems incredible that Memorial Day is nearly here, but at this point it will be incredible if the Phillies are not in the same spot or better come Labor Day.