TORONTO – The Phillies arrived at Rogers Centre on Sunday morning with heightened intensity.
And what caused it?
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"The losses," Rhys Hoskins said matter-of-factly.
The kid had a point.
The Phillies had lost six of their previous seven games – including an awful one Saturday in which they blew a five-run lead -- entering their series finale with the Toronto Blue Jays. Time is a-ticking in this pennant race and the Phillies, with just 32 games to play, need wins.
They got one thanks to an ensemble effort of starting pitching, bullpen work and power hitting (see First Take).
Hoskins, Carlos Santana, Maikel Franco and Wilson Ramos all clubbed home runs to lead an 8-3 win over the Jays. The victory left the Phillies at 70-60 and three games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East as they head home for three games with Washington beginning Monday night. The Nats took two of three from the Phillies in Washington last week. The Phils then lost the first two in Toronto before Sunday's win.
"There was just a little bit more intensity today, a little sharper focus," Hoskins said. "I think everybody got here this morning and realized that this was a big game. They're all big but this particular one felt a little bigger after a tough loss (Saturday).
"It was a tough road trip. It was important to get a win before we get back home and hopefully start some momentum. Obviously, we play really well at home. To get a win the way that we did, we came out hot, we swung the bats well early and Vinnie (Velasquez) gave us what we needed right there. He pitched with a lead really well."
Hoskins and Santana belted back-to-back homers against Marco Estrada in the first inning and Franco smacked a two-run homer in the third to give the Phils built a 5-0 lead. There was hardly comfort attached to that lead as the Phillies blew a similar lead the day before.
This time, manager Gabe Kapler didn't take any chances on his starter being able to lock down the lead. Velasquez pitched five innings of two-run ball and that was enough. The bullpen followed with four innings of one-run ball. Hector Neris struck out three batters in the seventh. He is an improved and more confident pitcher since coming back from Triple A. He has faced 24 hitters since returning and has struck out 15. He has walked just one.
Seranthony Dominguez also pitched an inning. He protected a big lead in the ninth and struck out two. Dominguez had a rough day in Saturday's loss and Kapler's use of the right-hander was a confidence-building exercise.
"He went out there and dominated," Kapler said. "He made us feel like he's ready to go back into a big spot."
The Phillies have won just seven of their last 19 games. They blew two 4-1 leads in Washington last week and a five-run lead Saturday. But over the span, the offense has been an issue. The club came into Sunday's game having averaged just 3.6 runs in its previous 18 games. One of the big issues with the offense has been not scoring tag-on runs late in games to allow the bullpen some breathing room.
That was not an issue Sunday, thanks to Hoskins, Santana and Ramos. Cesar Hernandez walked in the eighth inning, moved to third on a hit by Hoskins and scored on a sacrifice fly by Santana. Ramos followed with a two-run homer.
Ramos finished the day with four hits - two singles, a double and a homer - and three RBIs. He is 12 for 25 with seven extra-base hits and eight RBIs in six games with his new club.
"The runs at the end were the exclamation point to today and, I think, this road trip," Hoskins said. "When you get runs late in games, they seem to carry over to the next day. We're hoping that that carries over to the whole homestand."
The Phillies will face some difficult starting pitching against Washington. The Nats will send Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez to the mound. The Phillies will counter with Zach Eflin, Aaron Nola and Jake Arrieta.
It's a hugely important series and a hugely important homestand with the Chicago Cubs also visiting.
The Phillies have good vibes at home - they are 41-22 at Citizens Bank Park - and that can't hurt as they try to stay with the Braves and make sure the Nationals stay where they are.
"I don't think our feeling has changed," Hoskins said. "September baseball is what we're looking at right now. We know we play the division a lot and if we play - I think Jake Arrieta said it a couple nights ago - if we play better baseball, if we play good baseball, we're going to be right where we want to be come the last 10 days of the season."