As the calendar gets ready to flip from June to July, the Phillies find themselves in a very important stretch of games, six straight against the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals, two of the teams they are chasing in the National League wild-card race.
It’s an opportunity for the postseason-starved Phillies to gain some ground before the All-Star break arrives, but so far, they are not taking advantage of it.
A nine-game homestand has begun with a pair of losses to the sizzling Braves, who are 21-5 in June and now trail the first-place New York Mets by just three games in the NL East. Wednesday night’s 4-1 defeat dropped the Phillies to 39-37. They are eight games back in the division and three back in the wild-card chase.
There’s plenty of season left, but the Phils need to take advantage of these head-to-head matchups. They close out the series with Atlanta on Thursday night. St. Louis comes to town for three games beginning Friday night. Then it’s three against Washington and four more against the Cardinals in St. Louis next week.
As Zack Wheeler said Tuesday night, “We need to win.”
It didn’t happen Wednesday night because, for the second night in a row, the Phils didn’t produce enough offense. They won their first game without Bryce Harper in San Diego on Sunday but have now lost two in a row without their broad-shouldered slugger. Harper had surgery on his broken left thumb Wednesday and is hoping for a late August return.
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Phillies hitters were just 1 for 10 with runners in scoring position in losing Tuesday night’s game, 5-3. They followed that up with just four hits in Wednesday night’s loss, not enough to beat the Braves even on a night when Ranger Suarez pitched into the seventh and kept it close. Rhys Hoskins belted a solo homer in the third inning, but the Phils did nothing else against Atlanta starter Kyle Wright. They were 0 for 3 with runners in scoring position for the game. Mickey Moniak took a called third strike with the bases loaded to end the second inning. Mr. June, Kyle Schwarber, saw his 31-game on-base streak end. In 76 games, the Phils have been shut out seven times and held to one run eight times. No bueno.
“We’ve struggled at times with runners in scoring position,” Hoskins said. “It’s the age-old thing, we have to make sure that we’re not trying to do more than we’re capable of or more than what the situation calls for. We have to keep grinding away on that. The big hits are coming. They always are. We’ve gotten plenty of big hits during the year. We just have to really believe that there are way more coming.”
Hoskins was asked if he sensed players were trying to do too much in the wake of Harper’s absence.
“Naturally, there’s an inclination to do that,” he said. “We have to remind ourselves that we can’t replace him. There’s no replacing him. That’s the type of player he is. But we don’t have to replace him. I think if we all step up incrementally a little or just be ourselves, I think with the caliber of players that we have in this room -- sure we’ll miss him, any team would miss him -- but it doesn’t mean that we can’t get to where we want to go with the guys we have in this room if we commit to being ourselves.”
With Harper out, the Phillies really need more from No. 3 hitter Nick Castellanos. He will enter the final day of June hitting just .212 (21 for 99) for the month with four doubles, no homers and nine RBIs.
“I think he’s going out and getting the ball a little, trying to do too much,” manager Rob Thomson said. “He’s working at it. We’ve seen improvements in batting practice and early work, but it hasn’t translated in the games.”
Castellanos had a new bat behind him in the lineup Wednesday night. Darick Hall came up from Triple A, where he’d homered 20 times this season, and batted cleanup. He went hitless in four at-bats in his big-league debut.
Reliever Mark Appel also made his big-league debut nine years after he was selected with the first overall pick in the 2013 draft. Appel pitched a scoreless ninth inning, allowed a base hit and struck out a batter. The right-hander has battled injury and wildness in his career. He even stepped away from the game for three years before coming back. Two weeks before his 31st birthday, Appel had to hold back tears as he walked off the mound after his successful debut.