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June 02, 2024

Phillies quick hits: Homestand begins with series win over Cardinals

After a disappointing 2-4 road trip, the Phillies returned home for a three-game set with the St. Louis Cardinals and were able to rebound.

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Harper 6.1.24 John Geliebter/USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper launched a two-run home run into the second deck in right field in the seventh inning of the Phillies' 6-1 victory Saturday night.

Over the course of an 162-game regular season, even the greatest baseball teams experience adversity at some point. For the 2024 Phillies, riding high through 50 games or so, that adversity finally struck when the team struggled in a six-game west coast road trip, winning only two out of their six games against the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants.

The team returned home for a six-game homestand before it departs for a two-game set against the New York Mets in London, and got right back to their winning ways. Here is what jumped out from their three-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals:

Back of bullpen flexes muscles in series opener

The Phillies have had one or two weak links in their bullpen at most points of this season — which is the case for just about all clubs every season — but what is much more important than who a manager's least-trusted bullpen weapons are is who their most reliable options are. Phillies manager Rob Thomson has the remarkable luxury of utilizing three different relief pitchers who would be the no-doubt-about-it closer for the majority of major-league teams.

That was never more evident than during Friday night's 4-2 victory over St. Louis. Aaron Nola threw 6.1 innings of two-run ball, only allowing three hits. Nola was at 96 pitches and could have tried to complete the seventh inning, but because Thomson has three horses, he decided to not take any chances. Thomson needed eight outs from his three highest-leverage relievers, and they did the job without allowing a single runner to reach base.

First was Matt Strahm, who in 2024 — his first full season as a relief pitcher after being forced into an unplanned starting role at the beginning of 2023 — has been the best left-handed reliever in baseball by just about any metric. Despite not having a triple-digit fastball in his back pocket, Strahm has become a master at striking out hitters, and he has done so with impeccable command. He constantly pounds the strike zone and 

Up next was José Alvarado, who went from being demoted to Triple-A to the most dominant left-handed reliever in just a few months during 2022 and has since established himself as a mainstay at the back of Thomson's bullpen. The hard-throwing southpaw had a disastrous Opening Day in 2024, allowing five earned runs in 0.2 innings pitched. But since then he has been lights out.

While Alvarado's strikeout numbers have normalized a bit in 2024 — for the prior year and a half or so, they were outrageous; this season they are simply very good — the flamethrower has still done an outstanding job pitching in almost exclusively high-leverage situations. Alvarado has kept right-handed hitters in check, while left-handed hitters are essentially automatic outs against him right now.

Alvarado went onto make a true web gem Sunday night:

The ninth inning belonged to Jeff Hoffman. In 2022, the Phillies' front office and pitching coaches found a diamond in the rough in Andrew Bellatti, who gave them solid innings as a middle reliever and occasional setup man. Last season, as Bellatti's production waned, an even more impressive scouting success became apparent in the signing of Hoffman. Initially signed to a minor league deal, Hoffman became Thomson's most relied-upon right-handed reliever by the time the 2023 Postseason was underway — and the former first-round pick, just a handful of months away from hitting free agency as a coveted arm, has gotten even better in 2024.

In addition to the best starting pitching rotation in the majors, the Phillies have the best bullpen trio in baseball with Strahm, Alvarado and Hoffman. It is a recipe for success all summer long, and it is certainly a recipe for success in October.

Edmundo Sosa's revenge

When Edmundo Sosa caught the final out of the 2022 National League Wild Card Series at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the Phillies poured out of their dugout and rejoiced a playoff series victory. But it had to have been a bit sweeter for Sosa, who had been traded by the Cardinals to the Phillies just a few months earlier. Sosa fell out of favor in St. Louis, was shipped to Philadelphia and instantly became a key bench contributor for Thomson's club.

Since Trea Turner went on the Injured List, Sosa has not just been a viable replacement: he has been so good that the team may consider moving him to the outfield — where he has very rarely played during his professional career — once Turner returns from injury just to keep his bat in the lineup.

On the first pitch of his first at-bat of the series, Sosa demolished a slider that Cardinals starting pitcher Miles Mikolas left over the middle of the plate. It landed onto Ashburn Alley, a true rarity these days. Sosa absolutely obliterated this ball, the longest home run of his major-league career:

When the Phillies acquired Sosa back in 2022, it seemed like a minor move. But he kept finding ways to help the team through its playoff run. Now, someone once believed to have the ceiling of a platoon player is making a strong case that he needs to play on an everyday basis.

Finally, some right-handers

Because of the makeup of the Phillies' lineup and roster, there is a certain way opposing teams are going to attack them: showing them as many left-handed pitchers as humanly possible. With Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper entrenched in the top three of the order and Bryson Stott and Brandon Marsh in the middle of it — with right-handed alternatives like Whit Merrifield and Cristian Pache largely struggling at the plate this season — it makes sense to challenge them in that way.

Entering Saturday, the Phillies had 784 plate appearances against left-handed pitching in 2024 — the second-highest total belonged to the Miami Marlins at just 722. Some of it is bad luck, but some of it can certainly be attributed to teams identifying their best chance of limiting Thomson's high-powered lineup.

In the Giants series, southpaws started all three games for San Francisco. But, in a change of pace that the Phillies surely welcomed, they faced three right-handed starters in the series against the Cardinals: the struggling Mikolas, a star in Sonny Gray and grizzled veteran Lance Lynn. They are expected to face right-handers in at least the first two games of their upcoming series against the Milwaukee Brewers, if not all three.

The biggest winner here is Marsh, who may have speculated struggles at times due to a lack of consistent at-bats. Marsh's production against left-handers has gone from bad in 2022 and 2023 to worse in 2024, and Thomson has frequently opted to play Merrifield or Pache in left field when his team is facing a lefty. 

While the cries for Marsh to see more consistent playing time have some merit, it is awfully difficult to blame Thomson for not wanting to start the fan favorite outfielder against southpaws. In 46 plate appearances against left-handed starting pitchers in 2024, Marsh is slashing .129/.196/.175, striking out 20 times and drawing just four walks. 

In any case, truly playing on an everyday basis — even for just one homestand — could be quite helpful for Marsh. However, the 26 year-old outfielder left Sunday's game after suffering a right hamstring strain rounding second base.

Taijuan Walker hit hard again

Since returning from the Injured List and making his 2024 regular season debut on April 28, Walker has been the lone weak link of the Phillies' starting rotation. The veteran right-hander's ERA was 5.51 entering his second start on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" this season, and it only grew in the series finale. Cardinals manager Oli Marmol's lineup was aggressive, and were rewarded with plenty of hard-hit balls.

In the first inning, Walker allowed three balls to be put in play, and all three of them were hit at an exit velocity of at least 103 miles per hour — including a two-run home run by Cardinals slugger Nolan Gorman that came off the bat at 108.6 MPH. In the third inning, Walker put the Cardinals' leadoff man on with a walk before allowing another two-run shot — this one hit by Alec Burleson at 105 MPH. In addition to allowing plenty of hard contract Sunday night, Walker also struggled with command. 

Walker's final line Sunday: 5.0 innings, five hits, four runs (all earned), five strikeouts and three walks on 93 pitches (56 strikes). As has often been the case during his Phillies tenure, he received good run support, ultimately receiving a no decision. With seven starts and 37.2 innings now in the books, Walker's ERA is now 5.73. 

As Burleson rounded the bases following his no-doubt homer, a noteworthy portion of the crowd began chanting "we want Turnbull," in reference to Spencer Turnbull, who dazzled as the team's fifth starter for the first month of the season in Walker's absence before being moved to the bullpen once the veteran was activated.

After Ranger Suárez was forced to exit Saturday's game after just two innings, Thomson turned to Turnbull for bulk innings. The 31 year-old right-hander, who initially struggled in his transition to a relief role — Turnbull had never appeared in a major-league game out of the bullpen before 2024 — threw three lights-out innings, allowing no runs, hits or walks while striking out six. 

It remains to be seen if the Phillies will be willing to pull the plug on Walker in the starting rotation — it would be difficult to do in the second year of a four-year, $72 million contract. All evidence that exists to date suggests Turnbull is this team's fifth-best starting pitcher.

The big questions remains: how long is Walker's leash going to be?

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