CLEVELAND - Bryce Harper's reputation preceded him to this All-Star Game. Unfortunately for the Phillies, his performance in the first half of the season did not follow.
Harper's image is on All-Star signage around downtown Cleveland and he's all over the official souvenir game program. Major League Baseball projected that he would make his annual trip to the Midsummer Classic – hence the signage – but he did not make the final cut. Those fancy All-Star spikes that Under Armour had ready for Harper were never shipped.
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Harper's pictorial presence, along with his real-life non-presence at Tuesday night's All-Star Game, is a sobering symbol of how this season has gone so far for the Phillies.
Much was expected.
Not enough has been delivered.
Coming out of Clearwater, you didn't have to think too hard to envision the Phillies having four, maybe five, All-Stars.
Harper. Rhys Hoskins. Aaron Nola. Jake Arrieta. David Robertson. Andrew McCutchen. Jean Segura. J.T. Realmuto ...
Pick two, pick three, pick four – the Phillies figured to be well represented.
But when the players lined up for introductions Tuesday night, only Realmuto was there. He's been good, but not great. Ditto for Hoskins. And ditto for Harper and Segura. Robertson and McCutchen have been hurt and Arrieta, who may now be hurt, as well, has been inconsistent.
The second half of the season begins Friday night, but it's difficult to feel good about the Phillies. They got off to an exciting start, played through injuries in the bullpen and inconsistencies in the starting rotation, and raced out to a nice lead in the NL East. But since the start of June, they've gone in the wrong in direction and only been able to consistently beat the train-wreck New York Mets. The Phils blew a 3 ½ game lead over Atlanta and a 10-game lead over Washington and now trail both teams in the standings. They are 6 ½ games out of first place and they have just one starting pitcher (Nola) that can consistently be counted on to keep them in games. The Nationals, who have three of them, come to Philadelphia for a three-game series on Friday night. They are 28-11 in their last 39 games and will be looking to step on the Phillies' collective throat.
After that, the Phils host the Dodgers, baseball's best team, for four games. The Dodgers swept the Phils earlier this season out west.
The Phils have lost 21 of their last 35 games and all their holes have shown during that span. They are not catching the Nats and Dodgers at a good time and a poor showing could be enough to convince the front office that now is not the time to trade away young talent for a long-shot playoff run. As it stands now, the Phillies actually might have too many holes to adequately fill at one trade deadline.
The cure to what ails the 2019 Phillies lies within.
Harper, Realmuto, Hoskins, Nola, Segura, Scott Kingery, Hector Neris, Zach Eflin and others still have the same talent that most felt good about coming out of Clearwater. These are the same guys that helped the Phillies win a lot of ballgames in the first two months of the season and they've been joined by Jay Bruce, his productive bat and healthy will to win.
Remember how much fun the first couple of months was, with the big crowds at Citizens Bank Park and all those spirited handshakes after home runs? That emotion is gone now. Losing will do that to a team. Over the last six weeks, the Phillies' chemistry seems to have dried up. The team seems to have lost its fight. Players don't seem to take losing personally.
It's time for this group of Phillies to show they are more than just a collection of track records. They need some consistency. It is certainly possible offensively and it starts with Harper. He needs to take ownership of this team, show some sneer, and have the big second half he had last year in Washington. A hot Harper could rub off on others in the lineup.
The pitching is more worrisome. Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez and Eflin have talent. But it's time, way beyond time, that they find real consistency and reliability. Who knows what the second half will bring for Arrieta, who may or may not be able to pitch through an elbow issue, and may or may not be effective. Nola has been brilliant his last four starts, but the team's seven-year playoff drought won't end on his back alone. If the Phils don't get some big performances from Pivetta, Velasquez and Eflin, Madison Bumgarner or Zack Greinke or Robbie Ray or Marcus Stroman or Walter Johnson is not going to make a difference.
The last six weeks has left us with very little confidence, very little reason to believe that this team can make a run.
But the schedule remains plentiful with 72 games left. A good couple of weeks out of the gate, some good health in the bullpen, a trade or two, and maybe this team can make a run.
Time will tell.
In the meantime, the All-Star break continues and we are left to ponder the sad reality symbolized in all these Bryce Harper banners in Cleveland: This Phillies season of great expectations has featured too much underperformance and that's disappointing.
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