Philadelphia Phillies unraveling early in MLB season

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PHILADELPHIA — Two sixth-inning home runs were the difference in the Philadelphia Phillies’ 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, a much-needed victory that followed five consecutive morale-crushing losses. In other words, the Phillies began June with a win in large part by doing exactly what team president Dave Dombrowski’s $228 million roster was built to do: Pitch enough and homer plenty.

But the trouble these days is that the Phillies’ one-sided formula hasn’t worked nearly as well as anyone here hoped. They began June with just three more wins than the hapless Washington Nationals, barely holding off the Miami Marlins for third in the National League East. They watched the New York Mets match the third-largest division lead entering June since division play began in 1969. They were consumed by questions about the stability of their clubhouse, the kind of questions only winning is able to answer definitively.

In fairness, the Phillies (22-29) aren’t the only NL East team watching what was supposed to be a competitive division slip out of reach before the all-star break. The defending World Series champions, the Atlanta Braves, have a losing record and trail the Mets by double digits in the win column, too.

But the Phillies did not spend more on their roster than anyone but the Mets, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers to finish in third place. Their foreseeable weaknesses on defense and in the bullpen have tormented them. The powerful lineup they hoped to rely on has been middling. They have lost 10 one-run games, third most in baseball, and four in extra innings, tied for second most. Three of those extra-innings losses came this week during a particularly painful ending to May.

“Right now,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said, “anything that can happen for us to lose is usually happening.”

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Agonizing stretches such as this consume would-be contenders annually, but that offers little consolation to those enduring them because each one feels like its own puzzling affliction. The regularity with which the Phillies’ bullpen and defense have fallen apart, combined with the reliability with which their offense has done just enough to keep them in games, have forged a team that seems capable of losing only in the most demoralizing ways.

But this recent slide fits the mold of many others. Losses mount for a team that was supposed to be better. Postgame answers that once ended with “It’s early” slowly start to close with a less convincing “There’s still time.” Clubhouse culture comes into question: Manager Joe Girardi spent much of his pregame time with reporters this week dismissing a Philadelphia Inquirer report that suggested the Phillies have been lifeless in recent weeks — and waving aside concerns about his job security with a hint of frustration that no team wants to see in its manager in May.

“I don’t worry about my job,” Girardi told NBC Sports Philadelphia after the Phillies were swept by the Mets in New York last weekend. “I’ve never worried about my job. I don’t worry about my job. I’ve got to do my job.”

Girardi does have plenty of baseball-related concerns to occupy him. The Phillies went 4-12 to finish May. Rhys Hoskins, Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos have on-base-plus-slugging percentages that are at least 150 points lower than in 2021.

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“It’s a snowball. It’s a game of momentum,” Realmuto said. “If we win a couple of these close games in a row, maybe the offense starts clicking and we go on a little run.”

“It’s taking us longer to go on that run than we expected,” he added. “But we think it’s right around the corner.”

But a few hours into June, that run could not have felt more out of reach. The Phillies had lost seven of eight, many with late-game mistakes. Their best May hitters by average, Jean Segura and Bryce Harper, had been pushed out of the lineup by injuries. Segura broke a finger and will be out for up to three months. Harper has a torn right ulnar collateral ligament and has been limited to designated hitter duties as he waits to see whether a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow will let him play the outfield. He was scheduled to be the DH again Wednesday, but the Phillies scratched him because of forearm soreness, something he later told reporters he doesn’t expect to keep him out of the lineup much longer.

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Either way, as the free-falling Phillies entered their June opener against Giants ace Carlos Rodón, owner of the third-highest strikeout rate in the majors, the highest batting average in their lineup was .269. Castellanos and Hoskins spent the moments after they arrived at the ballpark and changed into their warmup shirts sitting at their lockers, hands on their knees, facing each other, talking about morale.

“Other than the fact that the team isn’t playing to expectations and I’m not playing to expectations, I’m fantastic,” Castellanos said to Hoskins, who chuckled, stood up and offered the only assessment baseball players seem to find when nothing is going right.

“It is what it is,” Hoskins said. Then he headed out to the field to take groundballs.

What it is, so far, is an undeniable disappointment, one that is as easy to understand in some ways as it is confounding in others. A team built around Harper and sluggers Castellanos, Hoskins and Schwarber owns the 10th-highest home run rate in the majors and the ninth-worst strikeout rate. Among teams with winning records, only the Los Angeles Angels — who arrive at Citizens Bank Park on Friday — are striking out more often. Twelve teams have scored more runs via the homer than the Phillies, who were built to outslug everyone. Ten teams are scoring more runs per game.

“We’re built around power. I think the game is built today more around power just because a lot of times it’s harder to string hits together with the pitching,” Girardi said this week. “Solo home runs don’t usually beat you. Walking a little more would help. Maybe a few more hits.”

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The Phillies got two crucial extra hits in Wednesday’s win, one to put a man on for Nick Maton’s homer, the other to put a man on for Schwarber’s go-ahead swing a few moments later. But while all teams would benefit from an extra hit here or there, the Phillies require it. Their bullpen ranks in MLB’s bottom third by ERA, and they are fourth with 14 losses in games they led at one time.

And their defense has been as limited as expected, if even more troublesome in big spots: They are the worst team in the majors in defensive runs saved at minus-26, meaning Philadelphia’s defense has been 26 runs worse than an average team — and five worse than the next closest team. For a team losing one-run games, built to hit enough that defense won’t matter, it has mattered a great deal.

But perhaps the issues that have dimmed the Phillies’ playoff hopes will not necessarily doom them — not yet. In their first game of June, it took just two big swings — the kind of swings this team was built to deliver, the kind of swings this team must have moving forward — to turn another close loss into a much-needed win. If there is one thing the power-heavy Phillies should be able to do, it is change things in a hurry.

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