Phillies (15-10) at Cardinals (12-13)
8:15 p.m. on CSN
The Phillies may never lose another game.
Six in a row. Nine out of 10. Two straight three-game sweeps and plenty of clutch hits, dominant starting pitching performances and whiffs by the bullpen.
Complete coverage of the Fightin' Phils and their MLB rivals from NBC Sports Philadelphia.
Who are these guys? How is it all happening?
1. Playing up to the competition
Last week, I wrote that as impressive as the Phils' first three weeks had been, you had to account for the teams they'd played. It's one thing to beat the Padres and Brewers; it's another to sweep the Nationals and then sweep a decent American League team in the Indians.
I wrote then that this 10-game stretch - three in Washington, three at home vs. Cleveland and four in St. Louis - would tell us more about the Phillies than those first three weeks, and that if they went 5-5 or better there would be legitimate cause for optimism. Well, the Phils have started that stretch 6-0, so barring a disastrous series in St. Louis they'll finish it with seven or eight wins.
Crazy stuff. The Nationals are 2-4 against the Phillies and 15-3 against everyone else. Directly after losing three in a row to the Phils, the Nationals went to St. Louis and swept the Cardinals. So it wasn't just a matter of right place, right time. The Phillies pitched their way past a Washington team that the Cardinals couldn't hold down.
2. Assorted winning stats
It's been a long time since the stats in these game notes were so positive. But how about these:
• The Phillies have swept two straight series of at least three games for the first time since Sept. 7-12, 2012. They played 165 series in between.
• The Phils are five games over .500 for the first time since they were 102-60 on the final day of the 2011 season.
• Only four teams in baseball - the Cubs, White Sox, Mets and Nationals - have a better record than the Phillies.
• The Phillies have shut a team out five times. That's more than the Pirates, Cardinals, Giants, Marlins, Brewers, Braves, Reds, Padres, Yankees, Orioles and Twins combined. And keep in mind the Phils were also one out away from shutting out San Diego, so that would have been six.
3. Concerned about run differential?
The Phillies are five games over .500 despite having a run differential of minus-16. Many will look at that number and say this team is bound to regress, and in truth, it is. The Phillies still look more like a 75- to 80-win team than one that will battle for a wild-card spot. But even 75 to 80 wins would be a massive upgrade on last year's 63-99 record and wholly uncompetitive brand of baseball.
Teams do sometimes finish with a winning record despite being outscored. The 2015 Angels finished 85-77 with a run differential of minus-14. The 2014 Yankees went 84-78 being outscored by 24 runs. The 2013 Yankees were 85-77 with a minus-21 differential.
There's one or two teams every year that do this, and oftentimes the reason for it is mediocre offense and strong bullpen work. Ring a bell?
The strength of this Phillies team is obviously a starting pitching staff that is young, talented and capable of missing bats. But the bullpen has been a major reason the Phils are 15-6 since their 0-4 start. Phillies relievers have a collective 2.89 ERA in the last 21 games. And even that is a bit deceiving because almost half of the runs allowed by the bullpen over that stretch have been by Brett Oberholtzer in mop-up duty. Take away the Oberholtzer appearances and the bullpen has an ERA of 1.84.
4. Hellickson vs. Wainwright
Jeremy Hellickson takes the mound tonight after his best start as a Phillie. Hellickson (2-1, 3.81) allowed just two hits over seven shutout innings last Friday in a 3-0 win over the Nationals.
It was an important outing for Hellickson because the Nats had pounded him earlier this season and twice last year. He made the necessary adjustments and looked as good as any Phillies starting pitcher has this season, other than Vince Velasquez in that 16-strikeout gem.
St. Louis hasn't seen much of Hellickson - current Cardinals are 5 for 28 (.179) against him with just one extra-base hit, three walks and 10 strikeouts. Yadier Molina has the homer. No player has multiple hits against him.
Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright is off to a rough start. He's 1-3 with a 7.16 ERA through five starts. He's not missing bats at all, striking out just 14 in 27⅔ innings. His opponents have a .327 batting average. And Wainwright, who is a lock for 200-plus innings when healthy, has yet to record an out in the sixth inning so far this season.
The 6-foot-7 right-hander picked up his first win in his last start, but it was more because of his bat than his arm. Wainwright hit a three-run triple off Diamondbacks lefty Patrick Corbin that put St. Louis ahead just before Wainwright exited. Hellickson needs to be careful with Wainwright, a .197 career hitter with six home runs.
5. Scouting St. Louis
The Cardinals' offense is not what it once was. They're finally feeling the effect of losing so many players to either free agency (Jason Heyward), injury (Jhonny Peralta) or tragedy (Oscar Taveras). And with each year, Matt Holliday becomes a less impactful power bat despite still having an imposing look at the plate.
St. Louis still has some decent hitters. Leadoff man Matt Carpenter is one of the most pesky and selective hitters in baseball. He knows the strike zone extremely well from the left side and won't chase. He's also money with runners in scoring position and has power, as evidenced by last year's 28 home runs.
Young outfielders Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk, as well as emerging centerfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, all have talent. Hazelbaker (.313 BA, 5 HR, 13 RBI) has been the best of the bunch so far, while Piscotty has hit .284 with an .847 OPS. Grichuk has struggled, but shouldn't be overlooked. Grichuk last year was toward the top of the majors in exit velocity off the bat, and despite hitting .179 so far in 2016 is a threat to pop one at any point.
The Cardinals' best hitters this season, though, have been a finally healthy Molina (.329 BA) and 25-year-old Cuban shortstop Aledyms Diaz, who is second in baseball with a .405 batting average and leads with a .703 slugging percentage and 1.139 OPS. Diaz's journey back to Earth may have begun over the weekend, though - he's 1 for 12 over his last four games.
The Cardinals have a pretty strong back-end of the bullpen with Trevor Rosenthal, Jonathan Broxton and 33-year-old Korean import Seung Hwan Oh. That trio has combined for a 1.99 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 31⅔ innings.
Piece heads home
Just a bonus note on Ryan Howard: He's a .341 career hitter in St. Louis with 11 HR and 39 RBIs in 156 plate appearances in his hometown. He's also hit .342 with a 1.103 OPS in 64 career games against the Cardinals, regardless of home or road. And he hasn't slowed down against St. Louis even during his decline years - he's hit exactly .300 vs. the Cards since 2012 with five homers and 15 RBIs in 19 games. Howard is 6 for 24 (.250) in his career against Wainwright with no homers, but he has walked six times.