WASHINGTON – Brandon Phillips looked during spring training and the first few weeks of the season like a four-time former Gold Glover and former Silver Slugger Award winner with plenty left in the tank.
Then he strained his left groin in an April 26 road game against the Mets, and Phillips cooled at the plate and began to look at times like a 35-year-old struggling to get to, or get his glove down on, sharply hit balls he once fielded with ease and often with a flair.
Flash ahead six weeks to late Friday, after a game in which one of those hot grounders that Phillips has handled throughout his 16-year career got past him for a single early in a three-run inning when closer Jim Johnson blew a 4-1 lead in a game the Braves would lose 5-4 in 10 innings. After the game, near midnight, Phillips said he submitted to something he’d never tried in his life: acupuncture.
That’s how desperate he was to reduce the lingering soreness, which had radiated from the groin to his upper left quadriceps muscle.
“I hate needles,” he said. “I hate giving blood and I hate needles, but I really wanted to try something different, and it helped out a lot. So I’m really looking forward to doing it again.”
The treatment paid immediate dividends for Phillips, who had arguably his best defensive game of the season Saturday in the Braves’ 13-0 rout of the Nationals. He made a good-to-great play in each of the first four innings, reaching the “great” side of the scale in the third inning when he dove to snare Daniel Murphy’s line drive with two runners on for the final out of the inning.
If the ball had gotten past him, one or two runs would’ve scored and the Nationals, trailing 6-0 at the time, might’ve gotten a little jolt to revive their offense against Julio Teheran, who instead went on to complete seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball and the Braves handed Washington its first shutout defeat of the season. Teheran credited Phillips for spearheading one of the Braves’ finest defensive efforts of the season.
Braves manager Brian Snitker said he kept going over to meet Phillips at the dugout steps or soon after the veteran second baseman entered the dugout in order to congratulate him for a great play.
“I told him one time, I’m doing this every inning, high-fiving you for diving plays,” Snitker said. “He was all over the place.”
Phillips said, “I’m just glad I made the plays. I got acupuncture (Friday) and did a lot of treatment on my leg. I’ve been playing with a leg injury since New York, but I’ve been battling. That’s why I’ve been looking forward to this (All-Star) break so I can come back and try to at least be (closer to) 100 percent. If it wasn’t for what I did (Friday) night, I probably wouldn’t have made those plays.”
Nick Markakis was in right field and had a good view of Phillips’ defensive work Saturday.
“It’s not surprise,” Markakis said. “We know how he is and what he’s capable of doing over there, and he showed it (Saturday). That’s a couple of big plays right there, some of those balls get through, you can’t give these guys multiple opportunities with guys on base because that’s when they’ll hurt you. We had some good defensive plays and I think Julio threw one of the best games he’s thrown this year. We played well as a team together.”
Phillips was out of the lineup for Sunday’s 1:35 p.m. series finale, the last before the All-Star break. Snitker made the move both to give Phillips a day off in the quick turnaround following the night game and to keep versatile rookie Johan Camargo in the lineup. Camargo made two starts at shortstop in the previous four games including Saturday when he had three hits.
For Phillips, the four-day All-Star break will provide time to rest and get regular treatment on his leg. He wants to come back from the break playing like he did at the start of the season before the groin strain.
“The groin (injury) went down into my quad, it’s like in-between now,” Phillips said. “So it’s kind of hard for me to bend over. But I don’t like to make excuses. That’s why I’m looking forward to the break, so I can get a lot more treatment, so y’all can see the real Brandon Phillips. Y’all saw him at the beginning, but you’ve seen bits and pieces of it throughout the first half. I’m really looking forward to the All-Star break so y’all can see what I can really do.”
In 19 games before the initial groin strain, Phillips hit a sizzling .352 with an .894 OPS. That plummeted to .217 (13-for-60) in his first 18 games after the injury, and he had a .259 average and .693 OPS in his past 60 games while playing through varying levels of discomfort.
Phillips was 7-for-48 (.146) with no extra-base hits, no RBIs and a .357 OPS in his past 12 games before Sunday.
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