The 2016 Phillies may still end the year with a losing record, but they have already become fun to watch again.
Coming off a second straight three-game sweep of their opponent, the Philadelphia Phillies are riding one of the hottest runs in baseball having won nine of their last 10 games. The Phillies are five games above the .500 mark, and dare we say just 2.5 games out of first place in the National League East. The odds are good the Phillies still have a long way to go to push either the Washington Nationals or the New York Mets for the NL East crown (oh, and currently tied for the second wild-card spot with the Pittsburgh Pirates), but if nothing else it is fun watching the youth of this team start to develop some sort fo winning attitude, and confidence.
One of the pleasant surprises during this recent run and over the course of the first month of the season has been the pitching. The starting pitching has been filthy for the most part, and the bullpen has been locking things down with some regularity. These are very encouraging signs, but considering how young many of these pitchers are it remains to be seen if the league will catch on to what they are doing. But the pitching has been working very well of late, so let’s see if that continues. There should be a nice little enthusiasm for the potential 1-2 combo the Phillies have cooking with Aaron Nola and Vince Velasquez.
Velasquez was only able to go six innings against Cleveland on Sunday on 103 pitches, but he only allowed two hits and struck out six batters without allowing a run before being pulled from the game. Through five starts, Velasquez has struck out 39 batters (boosted by a 16-K performance against San Diego) with a 4-1 record and 1.44 ERA. The counterpoint, going back to the previous thought about the league catching on to the young pitching, is what the Mets did to Velasquez. After being bewildered by Velasquez in early April through six innings with nine strikeouts and just three hits in a 1-0 Phillies win, the Mets stormed back in their second game against the young Californian with a pair of home runs and five runs (three unearned) before pushing him out in the middle of the fifth inning of an 11-1 victory in Philadelphia. We’ll see how Round 3 between the Mets and Velasquez goes. But remember this, Cole Hamels always seemed to struggle against the Mets too. So who knows?
Nola does not have the winning record Velasquez does, sitting at 1-2 with two no-decisions resulting in a 1-1 record for the Phillies, and his ERA is higher at 3.55, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is impressive (37 Ks vs. six walks) through 33 innings pitched. Nola put together two very strong efforts his last two times out, allowing just one run on six hits over 14 innings against the Brewers and Nationals on the road. The offense has given him just five runs of support when he has taken the mound though.
We knew the offense would be a bit of a work in progress as well. Ryan Howard has come through with some big hits recently, including his game-winning homer against Cleveland on Friday night, and he is tied for the team-lead for home runs (five) with Maikel Franco. Odubel Herrera has continued to be one of my favorite players on the team with his improved plate discipline (23 walks) and his .301 batting average. There is room for improvement up and down the line-up though, but I was on board for a year of growth in all areas.
After a quick stop home for three games against Cleveland, the Phillies are back on the road for the next 10 games. It all starts tonight in St. Louis with the first in a four-game series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals are sitting at 12-13 this season and may not be as good as they once were, so this could be a good time to be playing St. Louis. The Cardinals, though, could also be a tricky team to get by for this young Phillies team. Whatever happens in St. Louis, the Phillies will have a good chance to end the trip on a winning note with games against Miami (12-12, just 2-7 at home) and dreadful Atlanta (6-18, 1-12 at home). Coming home with six wins is not unrealistic, and may even be expected at this point. Losing a series against either Miami or Atlanta would be disappointing.
But here we are in May and the Phillies have a winning record. Who knows if it will last, but it sure has been fun watching Phillies baseball again, and that feels pretty darn good.