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June 08, 2024

Phillies quick hits: Phillies split London series vs. Mets

An uncharacteristic bullpen collapse Sunday prevented the Phillies from sweeping their two-game set against the New York Mets in London.

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Bryce Harper 6.8.24 Matthew Childs/Reuters via USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper rose to the occasion in London, putting the Phillies on the board in the series opener by launching a home run to right field.

The Phillies finally departed Philadelphia late last week for London to play a two-game set against the New York Mets. Once all of the festivities were put to bed, it was time to play baseball. After an emphatic Phillies victory on Saturday, the team squandered a chance to sweep their rivals due to a poor outing from its bullpen. Here is what stood out from the two-game London series:

Bryce Harper puts on a show in series opener

It almost felt inevitable that the Phillies' superstar first baseman would do something special in this series, because he always seems to come up with something when the lights are brightest. In the series opener on Saturday afternoon, Harper slashed a double to the opposite field in the first inning. He spent the bottom of the third inning mic'd up talking to the MLB on FOX announcers while fielding his position, then came up in the top of the fourth and obliterated a baseball into the right field seats. As he came back to the Phillies' dugout, Harper did a soccer-style celebration, much to the amusement of his teammates. Harper singled in his next at-bat, ultimately finishing the game a triple away from an international cycle.

On the 15-year anniversary of the famous Sports Illustrated cover in which Harper, then 16 years old, was billed as "Baseball's Chosen One," the two-time National League MVP showed once again the flare for the dramatic that has enabled him to surpass expectations loftier than those forced upon perhaps any other baseball player in history.

Orion Kerkering continues to dominate

The Phillies' bullpen has been headlined by the outstanding dominance of Matt Strahm, Jeff Hoffman and José Alvarado. Those three being as excellent as they have been in 2024 has set the table for rookie Orion Kerkering to settle down and focus on making his pitches without being overtaxed or overexposed. 

With two outs and two runners on base in the sixth inning of Saturday's series opener, Phillies manager Rob Thomson could have asked starting pitcher Ranger Suárez for one more out as he faced Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor. But in three plate appearances against the Phillies' left-hander on Saturday, Lindor had two hits and a hard-hit fly ball that was caught. So, Thomson got aggressive and handed the ball to Kerkering, who made his skipper look awfully smart.

Kerkering buckled Lindor — a four-time All-Star who was slashing .347/.397/.556 in his last 17 games after a rough start to the season — with his devastating sweeper after nearly touching triple-digits with his fastball that he is beginning to look increasingly confident throwing. 

Kerkering came back out for the seventh inning and struck out Pete Alonso and Brandon Nimmo — neither came on his signature sweeper — before inducing a fly out off the bat J.D. Martinez.

There were many curious if Kerkering would quickly be forced into a closer role in 2024. Because Thomson has three dominant bullpen weapons, that has not been necessary. But it certainly seems like he would be up to the task if necessary.

Taijuan Walker cruises, but Gregory Soto implodes in sixth inning

Walker, the Phillies' embattled fifth starer, had what was inarguably his best outing of the season in London. Walker only allowed one base-runner across five scoreless innings with six strikeouts before finally running into some trouble in the top of the sixth, allowing a single to Mets catcher Luis Torrens and walking Alonso with two outs.

Because this series was preceded by two days off and will be followed by an additional day dedicated to travel — and because Walker has struggled as he gets deeper into games all season long — Thomson was likely always going to be aggressive with his bullpen in this one. With the remarkable trio of Alvarado, Hoffman and Strahm all unused on Saturday, it seemed prudent for Thomson to ask those three arms to take down the game's final 10 outs.

Instead, though, Thomson called upon the volatile left-hander Soto to try to extinguish the inning by retiring lefty Brandon Nimmo. Soto gave up a run-scoring double to Nimmo, putting the Mets on the board, and then allowed a game-tying, two-run single to Martinez. Soto walked the next batter, and after three runs had crossed the plate for New York, Strahm entered — with 10 outs still remaining for Thomson's bullpen to take care of.

Thomson expressed concern before the team departed for London about relievers getting rusty without consistent appearances. Any reliever who pitched in neither London game, he pointed out, would end up going at least five consecutive days without facing hitters. That is likely the reason he handed the ball to Soto, who did not appear on Saturday, rather than going straight to his three horses. 

With the amount of wins the Phillies have banked this season, focusing on keeping everybody fresh first and foremost — even if there is a short-term expense -- is not hard to understand. But it is difficult not to wonder if things would have been easier had Thomson just given Strahm the ball three batters earlier.

David Dahl keeps on slugging

If Thomson made an error in judgement in the sixth inning, it is safe to say he made up for it in the seventh inning. With the game tied in the bottom half of the inning, Thomson utilized newcomer David Dahl against a right-handed relief pitcher as a pinch-hitter for Johan Rojas. Dahl, who was playing for Triple-A Lehigh Valley seven days prior, launched a go-ahead home run to right field -- continuing his hot start since joining the Phillies' big-league club.
Dahl, who slashed .340/.416/.660 and swatted 12 home runs in 43 games for the IronPigs, was brought back to the majors due to the injuries suffered by Marsh and Clemens. Neither of those two are expected to miss much more time, but Dahl is making a compelling case that he deserves to stick on this roster. Dahl, 30, is 4-6 with two home runs and a double since having his contract selected. It is a small sample size, but he has nearly been perfect in his first week with the Phillies' big-league club.

José Alvarado struggles with command in ninth inning, Phillies fail to sweep Mets

After all of the chaos, the Phillies had the Mets right where they wanted them on Sunday, with Alvarado jogging in from the bullpen and his team holding a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning. But Alvarado simply could not throw strikes. He was not missing by much, but just about everything he was throwing was missing by a bit. 

It briefly looked like the Phillies' left-handed flamethrower was on the verge of escaping a disastrous inning with the game tied, but Alvarado ended up hitting Alonso with a pitch to give the Mets the lead. A passed ball by J.T. Realmuto during the next at-bat gave the Mets an additional run of insurance.

After a brutal performance on Opening Day, Alvarado has been outstanding for the Phillies as the team's primary closer (though he is occasionally used in earlier innings). But his command has been a bit shaky of late, and it came back to bite him this time around.

The Phillies will have to settle for a series split in London.

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