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May 21, 2019

Paul Hagen: Five burning questions as Phillies pass first quarter of 2019 season

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Carroll - Philadelphia Phillies Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

The Philadelphia Phillies before the start of the season Home Opener, Thursday, March 28, 2019.

The Phillies have made it past the first quarter mark of the 2019 regular season with the best record in the NL East and second best win percentage in the National League. They've done it without playing consistently and with many weak spots. Here are five burning questions as the team looks to pull away in the season's second quarter. 

1. How can the Phillies look so bad against the Brewers, then sweep the Rockies and beat the Cubs? They’ve been that way all year long. It’s enough to make you seasick!

Take a Dramamine while we look at some of the reasons they’ve been more up and down than the Diamond Club elevator at Citizens Bank Park.

The most obvious reason is that starting pitching often sets the tone and the rotation has been a little erratic to this point of the season. Even Aaron Nola hasn’t been as consistent as he was in 2018 when he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting.

They’ve also been much better at home than on the road. Since baseball teams are always rarely home for longer than a week at a time, that’s a factor.

Then there’s this: There’s no reason why it should take a lineup time to mesh. Baseball is a most individual team game. And yet, for some reason, it often takes awhile for a team to gel when there are a lot of new faces. Don’t forget, there are four new regular position players (Bryce Harper, J.T. Realmuto, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura) this year.

2. So is it going to be this way all year long?

Probably not. Nola has talked about how the baseballs seem to be slicker this year and having a trouble getting a grip for his curve. That should be less of an issue when the weather gets warmer. The hope would be that Zach Eflin and Jerad Eickhoff will build on their more successful starts.

If the Phillies are as good as they appear to be on paper, they should start having more success on the road.

And the hitters should start to become more comfortable with each other, too. After all, they’re still learning an awful lot of celebrations and intricate handshakes.

3. Bryce Harper homered Saturday and then again Sunday. Does that mean he’s about to get hot again?

Um, maybe. Harper certainly has the ability to carry the team for long stretches and there’s little doubt that he’ll do that before the end of the season. But to predict that it’s about to happen immediately because he launched a couple bombs over the weekend is a little like flipping a coin.

In 2015 he was famously hitting .245 before bashing three homers against the Marlins at Nationals Park. That turned out to be a springboard. He raked the rest of the season and ended up being voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

The thing is, it doesn’t always happen that way. Last season, he homered in at least two games in a row four times. He did it in April and then had a 1.078 OPS in the subsequent 12 games. He did it in August and batted .452 with a 1.065 OPS in the seven games that followed.

But he also did it the first two days of May and, for the rest of the month hit .198 with a .761 OPS in 24 games. Which included another occasion during which he went deep in back-to-back games.

Turning points only become turning points in retrospect.

4. Manager Gabe Kapler frustrated some fans last year by always stressing the positive even after the most lopsided losses. But he admitted after the Brewers last week series that “action steps” needed to be taken. That’s a good thing, right?

It ain’t bad. But let’s separate the style from the substance.

First, the days when a Dallas Green or a Dick Williams or a Larry Bowa would rip into his players publicly are over. That approach simply doesn’t work anymore.

Besides, it doesn’t really matter what a manager says in the conference room after a game. Charlie Manuel didn’t criticize his players but it was an article of faith that he didn’t pull his punches behind closed doors.

The trouble with the never-is-heard-a-discouraging word approach is that it can leave the impression that players aren’t being held accountable for their mistakes. And, whether that’s true or not, nothing is more frustrating to a fan than to imagine that the sorts of screw-ups that drive them crazy aren’t being addressed in the clubhouse.

It makes us feel better to believe the manager is seeing the same things everybody else is. But what matters most is what happens after that.

5. What are some keys between now and the midpoint of the season?

A lot has been made of the fact that the Phillies started a stretch of 13 straight games against the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals and Dodgers on Monday night in Chicago. And that’s fair, because coming out of the weekend they’d only played 13 games against teams with winning records.

That’s compared to 33 games against teams with losing records. But here’s the thing. They’ve more than held their own against the better teams, going 9-5 after Monday night’s exciting extra- inning win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

But they’re just 19-14 against the clubs that are struggling. That’s not terrible but it’s not great, either. And one of the best ways to wrap up a playoff spot is to beat the whey out of the fourth- and fifth place teams.

And here are three individuals to keep an eye on:

• Starting pitcher: Jake Arrieta. 

If Eflin or Eickhoff or Cole Irvin hits a wall, the Phillies can always turn to Nick Pivetta or Vince Velasquez when he’s healthy or somebody else. Arrieta, because of his contract and his status, will stay in the rotation unless he’s hurt. So he needs to be good.

• Position playerMaikel Franco. 

Six homers in his first 16 games this year. One in his last 30 games. Enough said.

• RelieverHector Neris. 

Kapler resists designating a closer. But whether it’s to save games or get out of a high leverage situation in the seventh or eighth, he needs somebody he can count on. Neris has the wipeout stuff and, more importantly, is starting to demonstrate the kind of dependability he had a 2016.

Barring rainouts, the Phillies will complete the first half of the season with a home game against the Mets on June 26. Surely, there will be more questions – and proposed answers – then.