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May 29, 2024

Five thoughts after Phillies drop back-to-back series for first time in 2024

The Phillies finished their West Coast trip 2-4 after losing a series to the San Francisco Giants. Here is what stood out from the three-game set.

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Harper 5.29.24 D. Ross Cameron/USA TODAY Sports

There were some fireworks in Wednesday afternoon's series finale between the Phillies and San Francisco Giants.

For the first time since their opening series against the Atlanta Braves in March, the Phillies dropped a series over the weekend when they lost two out of three games to the National League-worst Colorado Rockies. They looked to rebound as their West Coast trek continued with a three-game set against the San Francisco Giants. The Phillies dropped the first two games of the series, giving them their first three-game losing streak of the season, before salvaging the trip with a win on Wednesday afternoon. Here is what stood out from the team's second straight series loss:

Defensive miscues plague Phillies in series opener

The Phillies have played a lot of sloppy baseball recently, perhaps never more than in Monday's 8-4 loss in which they committed three errors (which could have been four if not for rather generous scoring on a "double" that got by Alec Bohm) and allowed three unearned runs to score.

With the Phillies leading San Francisco 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Giants put two runners in scoring position with no outs. Giants second baseman Thairo Estrada smoked a ground ball right at Bohm, and the runner at third base took off. Had Bohm made a clean pickup, he would have been able to easily cut down the runner at home. Instead, the ball went under his glove. The runner going from third scored, and the runner on second made it to third. Two batters later, that runner would score on a sacrifice fly, giving the Giants a 5-4 lead.

Trailing 6-4 in the seventh inning, Phillies manager Rob Thomson called upon righty reliever José Ruiz, who has been a revelation since joining the team's bullpen nearly four weeks ago. Ruiz gave up a leadoff single to Estrada before another Bohm error -- his third in two games -- put two runners on base with nobody out. Two batters later, veteran utilityman Whit Merrifield dropped a routine pop-up. The Phillies' poor infield defense required Ruiz to effectively get five outs in the inning, and with two outs and the bases loaded, Ruiz surrendered a two-run single that put the Phillies down by four runs.

As long as this Phillies core is in place, defense will likely never be a true strength of the team. But they have to be a whole lot better than they were Monday.

Taijuan Walker's struggles continue

Walker started for the Phillies Monday, making his sixth start of the 2024 regular season. Like most of his prior starts, his outing was filled with hard contact and devoid of missed bats. Walker scattered nine hits across six innings, allowing six runs (two of them were unearned), walking two and striking out four.

The Phillies are in a fortunate position: they have banked so many wins, and the rest of their starting rotation has been so dominant, that it is easier for them to stomach putting Walker on the mound every fifth game than it would be for most teams. But, as brutal as it would be to move a pitcher out of the rotation in year two of a four-year, $72 million contract, it is hard not to wonder if there will be a point at which Phillies manager Rob Thomson reinserts early season standout Spencer Turnbull into the starting pitching mix. Turnbull's transition to the bullpen has been a bit shaky to date, but he was electric during his time in the starting rotation.

The issue is that this is not a flukey slump for Walker. It is an escalation of his inconsistencies and shortcomings during the 2023 season which led to him not throwing a single pitch in the postseason. His velocity, which took a significant dip from 2022 to 2023, has decreased again from 2023 to 2024. He is not only unable to generate whiffs, but he is constantly allowing balls to be barreled. There truly are not many signs of positive regression on the way for Walker.

Because of the terrific outings the Phillies have come to expect from Zack Wheeler, Ranger Suárez, Aaron Nola and Cristopher Sánchez, Walker being an innings eater of sorts with average-to-slightly-below-average production is acceptable. But right now, it's hard to say the veteran right-hander is even good enough to justify that modest description. The Phillies do not need him to function as another ace, but they do need him to be considerably better than what he has been through six starts.

Phillies offense stifled by an old friend

The Giants have been crushed by starting pitching injuries in recent weeks, and so they were forced to call up a player familiar to Phillies fans to pitch bulk innings on Tuesday night: former Phillies top pitching prospect Spencer Howard. Howard, once considered one of the sport's most promising pitchers in the minor leagues, quickly flamed out in Philadelphia.

Howard was called up for his MLB debut in 2020, and by the summer of 2021 was traded to the Texas Rangers in a deal that brought Kyle Gibson, Ian Kennedy and Hans Crouse to Philadelphia, and his struggles only escalated in Texas. Howard's 5.92 ERA in 2020 ended up being the lowest of any season in his major-league career by far.

In 10 starts for the Giants' Triple-A affiliate so far this season, Howard has thrown just 39.2 innings and amassed a 5.90 ERA. But because of how dire the organization's pitching situation has become, Howard was recalled for his first major-league appearance since July 28, 2023 on Tuesday night.

The Phillies' offense, which has struggled in recent games, failed to do any sort of damage against Howard. The 27-year-old right-hander tossed four scoreless innings. He allowed five hits -- a double and four singles -- while walking none. His 12 outs came on an efficient 49 pitches.

After Giants manager Bob Melvin used his two left-handed relievers -- former Phillies farmhand Erik Miller and then Taylor Rogers -- to get through the game's first three innings, Howard was able to bridge all the way to Melvin's most-trusted right-handed bullpen weapons, who held the Phillies scoreless for three additional innings, culminating in a 10-inning, 1-0 Phillies loss.

No offense is red-hot for an entire 162-game season, of course. Slumps happen. But if there was ever a pitcher who the Phillies should have been able to get to, it was likely Howard.

Tempers flare and benches clear after Bryce Harper voices frustration

Seven years to the day that Bryce Harper got in an infamous brawl with then-Giants relief pitcher Hunter Strickland, things got heated on the very same field.

Facing Giants rookie starting pitcher Kyle Harrison, Harper was nearly hit by a fastball thrown up and in. Harper -- who on several occasions in his career has suffered a serious injury after being hit by a pitch -- was visibly frustrated, barking at Harrison. The very next pitch came even closer to hitting Harper.

Instantly, both teams' benches cleared and their bullpens emptied.

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed: the only pushing or shoving came from Pat Burrell of all people -- the former Phillies outfielder now serves as San Francisco's hitting coach. Harper remained on the perimeter of the scrum, avoiding the mound-charging and helmet-throwing theatrics which got him suspended all of those years ago. Both teams were warned, and there was no escalation of the incident for the remainder of the game.

A fun fact: Harrison made his MLB debut last August at Citizens Bank Park. In the first inning of his first major-league outing, he allowed a two-run home run, the first earned runs of his career. That homer was hit by... Bryce Harper.

Nick Castellanos comes through in season finale

On Wednesday morning, I published a story titled "The Phillies have a Nick Castellanos problem," detailing the right fielder's massive struggles so far in 2024. So, of course, on Wednesday afternoon, all he did was hit a single in his first at-bat, a double in his second at-bat and then a two-run homer in his third at-bat. In four and a half innings of action, Castellanos' OPS rose by .038 points.

The Phillies need Castellanos to be much better than he had been up until this game for the remainder of the season -- Castellanos entered Wednesday with the second-lowest Wins Above Replacement in all of baseball, according to FanGraphs. But specifically while star shortstop Trea Turner remains sidelined, the Phillies need reliable right-handed hitting at the top and in the middle of their batting order.

With Kyle Schwarber leading off on an everyday basis, Harper hitting third and Bryson Stott and Brandon Marsh facing right-handed starters regularly, being able to sandwich right-handed hitters in between makes it much harder for opposing managers to optimize pitching matchups once their starting pitcher is removed from the game.

As disappointing as much of Castellanos' two-plus-year Phillies tenure has been, there have been a few times where he has heated up for weeks at a time and carried the team's offense. This is likely not a lineup that needs carrying, but it sure is one that could use an improved version of a hitter who won a National League Silver Slugger Award just a few years ago.

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