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June 13, 2019

Kevin Cooney: The good, the bad and the puzzling as the Phillies fall out of first place

It was before 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday night when Gabe Kapler strolled into the media room. The stare into the crowd of reports and camera projected a strange mixture of confidence and concern.

His Phillies had just dropped their 8th game in the last 13 — a 2-0 loss to Arizona that was over in a blink — to continue a trend-line that was about to send them packing out of first place for the first time since the end of April.

“I think we have better baseball in us than we have shown in this stretch,” Kapler said. “We have more consistent baseball in us than this most recent stretch of games. We have to play better to beat teams like the Braves, the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. These are very good teams that present really strong challenges. In order to be successful against them, you have to play very good baseball. This stretch of games, it has not been our best baseball.”

The Phillies will have a day off on Thursday for its annual Phestival funraiser for ALS. But when they return on Friday, it is 17 games in 17 days all within the National League East and 26 straight against the division that will lead to after the All-Star Game.

And through 68 games, the 38-30 Phillies are showing the signs of a team that will be maddening to figure out the rest of the summer. Some good, some bad and some really puzzling pieces moving forward are the stories to watch.

Good: Baseball’s old adage is that you win series, you eventually get to October. To this point, Philadelphia has been pretty good in that regard. They are 13-6-3 in 22 series to this point in the season, sweeping two sets while only getting swept in one at Dodger Stadium.

At a similar point in 2018 — the year that was a mirage for most of a summer until reality smacked hard in August — they were 8-11-3 in series.

It shows a certain level of performance.

Bad: The rest of the National League East has been let back into the door. This isn’t just about the Braves, who had picked up Dallas Keuchel and have a better than you think lineup headed by Ronald Acuna and Freddie Freeman. Two weeks ago, the Mets and Nationals looked ready to fire their managers and start selling off.

Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. The Mets are a game under .500 and 4 1/2 back. The Nationals have held at seven back, but their run differential has been cut to just minus-1 and they’ve played a lot better. They have seven games against the Phillies in the next month — four in Washington next week, three in Philadelphia the weekend after the All-Star Game — to make a serious charge.

Good: Jay Bruce and Scott Kingery have been a godsend. The fact that Bruce showed up the day that Andrew McCutchen got hurt has been the only blessing that has emerged for the Phillies. Bruce is hitting .333 with a 1.201 OPS since arriving in Philadelphia. He’s played a better than you thought left field. In reality, he’s been better than Matt Klentak and crew could have possibly expected in the early going.

Kingery appears to have solidified his role since coming off the disabled list. He’s hitting .315 with seven homers, 18 RBIs and a .969 OPS in 111 at-bats. The one thing that is certain about Kingery isn’t his spot in the field — he could toggle between center field and third base until the Phillies make a decision on one of those spots — but his space in the lineup is now virtually secured.

Puzzling: Remember when the Phillies lineup had the potential to be one of the best in the game. The numbers don’t back that up. They had a .741 OPS (18th in MLB), 82 homers (21st in Majors), a .244 average (21st) and a .322 On Base Percentage (16th). 

“I’m confident that our numbers are going to be there,” Kapler said after Wednesday’s game. 

But this Phillies lineup is starting to take on the air of some of the lineups from the mid-2000s that looked great on paper but would go through wild swings between bust-out effective and occasionally dormant.

Good: Hector Neris has been a rock at the back of the Phillies bullpen. He’s 14-for-14 in save opportunities and has allowed only one of 10 inherited runners to score. He had one hiccup in Los Angeles, but has bounced back nicely since then. Neris may make a ton of people nervous, but he’s actually been pretty effective. And while the Phils need bullpen depth — some will come with the players coming off the injured list like Pat Neshek this weekend — Neris may have solidified his grip on closer.

Bad: This bench has an ability to be all-time awful. Yes, part of it is because of the injury to McCutchen. The Phillies pinch-hitters have a .213 on-base percentage – worst in the majors — and a .485 OPS.

A bench of Nick Williams, Andrew Knapp, Phil Gosselin, and Sean Rodriguez was the well that Gabe Kapler had to play around with. That has to improve or the Phillies crumble down the stretch again.