DETROIT - The Phillies have a day off on Thursday before they begin an important nine-game homestand Friday that features three games against the NL East-leading Braves, three more against the surging Giants and an interleague series against the White Sox. In the middle of it all, the trade deadline will arrive and the calendar will flip to August and a stretch drive that will ultimately determine whether the Phils will be booking tee times for an eighth straight October or playing some playoff baseball.
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Gabe Kapler isn't usually one to emphasize one series over another, but in action spoke of how important the games are about to get for his team when he constructed a lineup that did not include Bryce Harper for Wednesday's game against the lowly Detroit Tigers.
Harper had played in all but one game this season and needed a blow, as the expression goes. Getting him one Wednesday would allow him back-to-back off days before the Braves series and the stretch drive of the season. Kapler gave Harper the day off knowing that if all goes well for the Phillies the rest of the way - if they stay in the race - Harper probably would not get another day off the remainder of the season.
This is why Kapler said it felt like the Phillies pulled off "a double win" on Wednesday afternoon. The Phils got more outstanding pitching in beating the Tigers, 4-0, at Comerica Park and Harper got a little breather before this crucial stretch of the season (see observations).
"To not have Bryce in the lineup and still come away with a victory, that was pretty big for us," Kapler said.
J.T. Realmuto, who caught 15 innings the night before, got a little break from that position. He played first base and hit a home run. Nick Williams also homered. Vince Velasquez pitched shutout ball for 5 2/3 innings and the bullpen was once against stellar (it racked up 11 1/3 scoreless innings in two games in Detroit) in closing out the win.
The Tigers have the worst record in the majors and one of the worst offenses. Phillies pitching did exactly what you should do to a poor hitting team - it held them to one earned run in 24 innings in the two games.
Wednesday's victory gave the Phils a 4-1 road trip to Pittsburgh and Detroit. Those clubs play in big ballparks and that was OK with Phillies pitchers, who did not allow a homer on the trip after being tagged for 15 in four games by the Dodgers last week at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phils have won three in a row for the first time in a month and are six games over .500 for the first time in over a month. They have won five of six. They fumbled first place in the NL East and let the Braves take control of the division over a six-week collapse, but seem to have weathered the storm. With continued good play and some help from the front office at the deadline, they should be able to stay in the wild-card picture - and the division remains within shouting distance with two months to go.
"We feel good about the trip and going home for the Atlanta series pretty healthy, in good sprits and with some confidence," Kapler said. "I think we're getting plenty of support from the front office. I think this showing on the road is reason to be optimistic. I think if we play well against the Braves, that will provide more optimism."
Clearly, Kapler sees this series against the Braves as vital - and it is. Jake Arrieta will pitch Friday night and Zach Eflin on Saturday night. There had been some question as to whether the Phils would use Aaron Nola on regular rest in Sunday's series finale. Sometimes the Phils give Nola extra rest when the schedule permits. His numbers are very good with that extra day.
But as he packed his bags for the trip back to Philadelphia after two wins in Detroit on Wednesday, Kapler made the call: Nola will go Sunday against the division rival Braves. It was another decision that showed just how important this upcoming stretch is. Nola pitched seven innings and gave up just one earned run Tuesday night. He is the Phils' best. He needs to be on the mound as much as the schedule permits.
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