The Phlying Phillies

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper launches his seventh-inning blast off the Miller Park scoreboard behind the center field fence Thursday. Would you have predicted a seven-game winning streak for the Phillies  including six straight since Joe Girardi’s execution?

Don’t look now, but that’s a seven-game winning streak the Phillies have now posted, six of which—including Thursday’s 8-3 demolition of the Brewers in Milwaukee—have happened since Joe Girardi was thrown off the bridge in favour of his bench coach and longtime associate Rob Thomson.

From the moment they took down the Giants in what proved Girardi’s final game on the bridge, the Phillies’ thought-formidable offense went from sputtering to out-scoring the opposition 53-19. Living up at last to their preseason billing as a threshing machine at the plate, they posted an .877 team OPS entering Thursday’s game largely by way of hitting eighteen home runs during the streak.

They’ve also pitched above and beyond enough to make it matter. Entering Thursday, the Phillie streak showed a team 3.00 ERA and—better, yet, by far enough—a 2.38 team fielding-independent pitching (FIP) rate.

They even helped take another manager down while they were at it, sweeping the Angels last weekend and thus putting Joe Maddon into a guillotine that may have been built for him before the season began. Sweeping the National League Central-leading Brewers doesn’t measure their skipper Craig Counsell for beheading just yet. But still.

Before they beat the Giants last week the Phillies looked so lost, so unable to shake the late-inning deflations and bullpen arsons, that calling them by their ancient Phutile Phillies nickname seemed more than an exercise in phutility. Since beating those Giants, it looks as though it’s phun to be a Phillie again.

Even being out-hit by the Brewers 11-9 on Thursday, and opening by Brewers starter/defending Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes striking them out in order, the Phillies still found a way to turn a measly one-run lead after six full innings into a five-run margin of triumph.

It only began with Bryce Harper, whose UCL injury limits him to designated hitting, leading off the Philadelphia seventh with a parabolic home run banging off the scoreboard well behind the center field fence. Giving him three bombs in his past four games.

Then with outfielder Mickey Moniak aboard on a two-out walk in the top of the eighth, Kyle Schwarber hit a hanging 2-1 sinker 432 feet over the right center field fence. And in the top of the ninth, Harper set the table with a first-pitch base hit to right center and Odubel Herrera dined on a hovering changeup—after fouling off four straight—to prove practise makes perfect, sending it into the right field seats.

A first-inning blast from former Ray Willy Adames and a leadoff bomb in the sixth by Hunter Renfroe were the only damage the Brewers could do until former Phillie (and former longtime Pirate standout) Andrew McCutcheon singled Christian Yelich home with two outs, before Phillies reliever James Norwood got the game-ending ground out from Brewers third baseman Jace Peterson.

“Someone put the fear of God into them,” says a lady of my acquaintance regarding the suddenly Phlying Phillies. Considering Girardi’s reputation as a by-the-book, nuclear-intense martinet, perhaps it was more as though someone removed the fear of God from them. Most of it, anyway.

When they finished sweeping the Angels this past Sunday, the big blows were Harper’s grand slam and rookie third baseman Bryson Stott, Stott walking it off with a three-run blast against the Angels’ own wavering bullpen arsonists. Harper was almost beside himself over Stott’s blast.

“I’m so happy for the kid, man,” the defending National League Most Valuable Player crowed after that 9-7 win.

What an at-bat. What a situation for him. Being able to put our trust in our young guys the last couple days, and really let them just play . . . it’s been great. And it paid off today. The thing about Bryson is he’s got to play. He’s used to playing every day. From high school, to college, to minor league baseball, to now. He’s used to playing every day, and that’s what we’ve got to do for our young guys . . .

Our young guys have got to play. When you want your young guys to have success, they have to play everyday. And when they have those opportunities, I think they’re going to take full advantage of that. If that’s Bryson, if that’s [Nick] Maton, if that’s [Alec] Bohm-er or anybody else . . .

From Girardi’s difficulty in trusting his youth to Thomson’s apparent fearlessness in trusting the young guys to just play. There were those taking Harper’s commentary as a veiled shot at Girardi, and you can understand why to a small extent. On the other hand . . .

“We needed to get going,” Harper said after the Phillies finished sweeping the Brewers. “Everybody knew that. It’s just a different vibe. I think we’re just playing good ball right now.”

Maybe a change of managers doesn’t always ramp up into immediate winning streaks. But remember the 2009 Rockies pinking Clint Hurdle and installing former Dodger manager Jim Tracy on the bridge. Tracy took the gig with the Rockies when they were 18-28. They started 2-4 under him but then hit an eleven-game winning streak that turned into fourteen of fifteen and launched them toward the National League wild-card game.

Ironically enough, Hurdle took the Rockies bridge after Buddy Bell was executed in 2002 . . . and they won six straight to begin the Hurdle era. And, 107 years ago, Pat Moran took the Phillies bridge to open the season, went 8-0 out of the chute, and ended up in the World Series, where they lost to the Red Sox who featured a kid pitcher named Babe Ruth.

On the other hand, there were 81 mid-season manager switches from 1987-2010, eighty of which came courtesy of executions. Only nineteen of those teams changing skippers mid-season finished those seasons with .500 or better records for the year, and out of those nineteen only five—Tracy’s Rockies, the 2004 Astros, the 2003 Marlins, the 1989 Blue Jays, and the 1988 Red Sox—reached the postseason, with one (the ’03 Fish) going all the way to win the World Series.

Nobody wants to spoil the Phillies’ party now. But the precedents don’t favour them entirely, either. Savour it while you have it, Phillieppine Island. For however long it proves to last. And if the currently Phlying Phillies manage to make the postseason at all, count your blessings and your miracles. They don’t happen as often as we’d like.