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April 23, 2019

Paul Hagen: In a slightly alternate universe, Phillies fans would be completely fed up

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Bryce-Harper-Phillies-042319_USAT Ron Chenoy /USA Today Sports

Bryce Harper has been cold lately after starting the season so hot.

Back when I was the Phillies beat writer for the Daily News, there would occasionally be a note in the daily press package that went something like this:

Not counting his starts against the Mets on April 10 and the Dodgers on May 6, Joe Flamethrower is 3-2 this season with a 2.72 earned run average.

Which is sort of meaningless, when you think about it. Baseball statistics aren’t like some gymnastics event where the high and low scores from the judges are sometimes dropped. All your games count. You are what your numbers say you are. And in this example, those two shellackings meant poor Joe was actually 3-4 with a 4.31 ERA.

Along those lines, even after a 5-1 loss to the Mets at Citi Field on Monday night the standings say the Phillies are tied for first place of the National League East with a 12-10 record. Case closed.

Still, the example above is a useful reminder of the power of perception. So, just for fun, let’s allow our mind to wander into a baseball Twilight Zone. Let’s imagine that the first week of this baseball season, when the Phillies won five of their first six, mostly by big margins, never actually happened.

Let’s pick up the action on Saturday, April 6 with the Twins playing at Citizens Bank Park. Let’s insert all the Opening Day hoopla and think about how different the perception of this team might be.

The first thing you’d notice is that the Phillies would be 7-9 and in fourth-place of a tightly-bunched division race, ahead of only the perpetually-rebuilding Marlins.

It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that the team would be preaching patience, noting how early in the season it still is. It’s hardly a stretch, either, to suggest that fans would be pushing back, noting the high-profile offseason acquisitions of Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and, of course, Bryce Harper.

There would be a lot more grumbling on local sports talk radio and social media about losing four of the last five while scoring a total of just seven runs in the defeats.

There would be a lot of angst about how long it will take for all the new personalities to gel and speculation about how long it will be before owner John Middleton becomes fed up with what he’s watching.

There would be even more muttering about the state of the pitching, both the rotation and bullpen, than there is.

Surely, the decisions of manager Gabe Kapler on everything from lineup construction to pinch-hitting decisions to handling the bullpen would be the focus of more vigorous debate than has been the case so far.

Instead, a random sampling of the vox populi Monday turned up a spirited discussion on whether or not Donovan McNabb had dissed Carson Wentz.

There are explanations for this. One is that it is, in fact, still so very early in the schedule and there are, in fact, still so very many games to be played. School isn’t out yet. The Sixers have a chance to clinch their first round playoff series against the Nets on Tuesday night.

The biggest reason the paying customers aren’t more restive, though, has got to be that those first six games can’t be taken away like a kid losing dessert because he doesn’t eat all his Brussels Sprouts.

No matter what happens between now and the last day of the season, the Phillies got off to a 5-1 start. They averaged over eight runs per game. Harper batted .400 with a 1.521 OPS. That all happened and it created a strong base of both excitement and confidence. Certain question marks became exclamation points then accepted as realities.

Such as: This team is really good. It doesn’t matter that they’ve been outscored 83-68 since that start.

Such as: This team is an offensive juggernaut. It doesn’t matter that they’ve scored three or fewer in 10 of 16 games since.

Such as: This team has great power. It doesn’t matter that they averaged 1.67 homers per game during the fast start and 1.25 per game since.

There are a lot of reasons why teams strive to get off to a fast start. As the saying goes, you can’t win the division in April, but you can lose it in the first month. And, on a more basic level, winning is always better than losing. Duh.

In the case of the 2019 Phillies, there were extra dividends. It helped build on the excitement that was created when Harper signed, selling a lot of tickets and merchandise in the process. It affirmed the wisdom of committing $330 million over the next 13 years for one dynamic player. It helped erase lingering doubts and turn the page for an organization that had stepped off a cliff in the final months of the previous season.

And it bought a lot of good will, an insurance policy of sorts, that’s provided a buffer zone against the kind of so-so play they’ve displayed lately, the kind of stretch every team goes through at some point of the season.

That won’t indemnify them forever, of course. If they don’t turn it around pretty soon, fans will start to wonder. Are the real Phillies closer to the team that kicked the tar out of opponents the first week? Or the one that hasn’t been nearly as good since?

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