As Braves continue to roll, don’t forget about the Phillies

Defending National League champs are hot, too

Remember the Phillies? I kind of forgot about them even though they won the National League pennant last year. I was watching the Phillies beat the Rays on Wednesday night at the same time the Braves were handling the Guardians, and it occurred to me that it was unwise to write off Philadelphia.

The Phillies beat the Braves in the postseason along the way to winning the 2022 NL pennant. They twice led the World Series over the Astros before succumbing. Then Bryce Harper had elbow surgery in November, Rhys Hoskins had season-ending knee surgery on opening day and the Phillies staggered to begin 2023.

It seemed safe to dismiss Philly’s 2022 run as a fluke. Now the Phillies are providing a reminder that they’re still a good team. While the Braves went on a historic June run that’s continued into July, the Phillies haven’t been far behind.

The Braves have posted a 25-5 record since the beginning of June. That’s MLB’s best mark during that time. The Phillies have MLB’s second-best record (21-9) over that span. They secured a series win at American League-leader Tampa Bay on Wednesday, becoming the second team to do so this season, and were going for the three-game sweep Thursday night.

The Phillies won’t catch the Braves (58-28) in the NL East. The Braves are 11.5 games ahead of the third-place Phillies with more than half the season played (all records and statistics before Thursday’s game). But it’s time to take Philadelphia more seriously as a postseason threat to the Braves.

Previously, I had the Dodgers alone on that list. I assumed L.A. would get rolling once the pitching staff got healthy, but that’s not happening. The Dodgers announced Tuesday that Dustin May would have elbow surgery. A day earlier, they put Clayton Kershaw on the injured list because of persistent shoulder soreness.

A team needs a lot of pitching to handle the Braves, who bash opponents into submission with a deep and powerful lineup. The Phillies are holding foes down with superb pitching. Philadelphia’s arms got the best of the Braves’ bats during last year’s Division Series. Now the Phillies have an even better rotation.

During the offseason, Philadelphia added ex-Met Taijuan Walker behind Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler. Wheeler and Nola rank among MLB’s top 25 starting pitchers in Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs). Walker beat the Rays on Wednesday for his sixth consecutive win (1.62 ERA in those starts). Converted reliever Ranger Suarez (3.67) ERA is looking strong in his second full season as a starter.

Even Philadelphia’s long-suffering bullpen is getting good results. From 2019-21, Phillies relievers collectively ranked 23rd, 28th and 28th in WAR. They were ninth in 2022 and are sixth this season. Closer Craig Kimbrel is giving up too many homers, but is striking out hitters like he did during his best days. Behind Kimbrel are two very good lefties (Jose Alvarado and Gregory Soto) and a solid right-hander (Jeff Hoffman).

The Phillies have the pitching necessary to make another deep postseason run. It’s their offense that’s lacking. There’s not much pop in the lineup outside of Kyle Schwarber, J.T. Realmuto and Nick Castellanos. That’s where losing Hoskins hurt the most. He hit six homers in October, including a three-run shot off Braves fireballer Spencer Strider that turned the NLDS in Philly’s favor for good.

The Phillies have two reasons to believe the power will come. One is pretty much a sure thing: Harper is still healing from the elbow injury that’s held him back since he won the NL MVP Award in 2021. The other hope for a power infusion is more of a long shot: Scott Kingery, a former top prospect, is raking in the minor leagues as he tries to get back to the majors.

When Harper underwent Tommy John surgery in December, the Phillies said they expected him to return by the All-Star break. Harper came back sooner than expected, making his debut May 2, and is hitting 300 with a .396 on-base percentage. But Harper has only 16 extra-base hits in 200 at-bats, well below his career rate, and hasn’t homered since May 25.

Kingery hit 19 homers in 126 games in 2019. He didn’t hit much at all for the Phillies in 2020 and continued to scuffle in the minors over the past two seasons. This season Kingery is hitting .275 with nine homers and 11 doubles in 69 games at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Maybe he can help the Phillies again.

The Phillies will be a force if they improve their power hitting. The defense is what you’d expect from an organization that hasn’t cared about it for as long as I can remember. The Braves scored five unearned runs in the 10th inning to win in Philadelphia on June 22. That was the Braves’ fourth win in six games against the Phillies this season.

The Braves split four games in Philadelphia in May. That was when Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster were plugging holes in the rotation. The Braves won the opener with Dodd starting by roughing up Nola. They lost Shuster’s start, but that was on the bullpen, not him. Wheeler had 11 strikeouts over eight scoreless innings in the third game. The Braves won the series finale by jumping reliever Dylan Covey, who opened the so-called bullpen game.

The Braves and Phillies are set to play eight more times this season from Sept. 11-20. It’s doubtful that will have much bearing on the East race because the Braves are running away with the division. It could be a preview of a potential tricky October matchup for the Braves. That seemed unlikely even a month ago, but don’t forget about the Phillies.

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