The Philadelphia Phillies are scheduled to begin a long weekend series with the division-rival Miami Marlins on Thursday night.
It will be the opener of a four-game set, one that will see the club and its fans celebrate some its heroes from the recent past with Alumni Weekend festivities.
After five years of franchise futility, this current group of Phillies has surprisingly fought their way to the top of the National League East Division standings.
They took over the division lead nearly a month ago with a huge 17-5 offensive outburst of a victory over the host Pittsburgh Pirates first pushing them to the top.
That July 6 win at PNC Park began an 11-game, four-city road trip on which the club went 6-5 leading up to the MLB All-Star Game break. Despite a few stumbles, the Phillies have yet to surrender that top spot.
However, that trip could have been even better. The Phillies dropped the final pair of games in Miami by a combined score of 12-5 with the club appearing listless against what was a last-place Marlins team.
Flash-forward nearly three weeks, and the Phillies are still in first place. They cling now to that lead by mere percentage points over a young and talented Atlanta Braves squad that is actually a game better in the loss column.
The Marlins are still in last place but are tied for that spot. The Fish are actually percentage points ahead of the New York Mets. Miami comes to South Philly a bit cold, having lost two straight, four of six, and six of their last nine.
This is a series that the Phillies need to win if they actually want to win the division crown. They will not be able to hold off Atlanta or the Washington Nationals, who are now five back and appear to finally be showing signs of life, by splitting or losing series to teams like Miami over the final two months.
Manager Gabe Kapler is well aware of the position that his team now finds themselves in as the pursued division leader. He was quoted by Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia following Tuesday’s big 3-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park:
“Every win is vitally important for us. The teams around us aren’t going to slow down. We know what Atlanta is doing and Washington has the ability to play well for a long stretch and put themselves back in contention, so we have to continue to increase our skill sets consistently. We have to pitch a little better, field a little better and the same thing at the plate. At this point in the year, teams are playing really well, especially teams that have a shot to get into the playoffs, so we have to do everything consistently from this point forward if we want to get to where we’re confident we can go.”
To hang another NL East championship banner at Citizens Bank Park, the first in seven years, this club is going to need some of its marquee players to step it up. Perhaps none is more of a key than mercurial center fielder Odubel Herrera.
For much of the last six weeks, ‘El Torito’ has largely disappeared from the Phillies offensive attack. Since June 25, Herrera has slashed poorly at .213/.278/.377 and has scored just 13 runs.
One area of Herrera’s game that has not been lacking is the long ball. This struggling stretch has seen him manage to blast a half-dozen home runs over 133 plate appearances. That puts him on a pace that would see him finish with a 30+ homer season.
But that has been it for the 26-year-old native of Venezuela as far as offensive production. He has just two other extra-base hits, both doubles, during the slump. He is not hitting into bad luck either, as his .233 BAbip mark reveals.
Herrera has struck out 30 times over those six weeks and now has 92 K’s on the season, putting him on a pace that would surpass his previous career high of 134 strikeouts set back in 2016.
However, the six homers give him 19 on the season. That total bests his previous career high by four with the team still having 55 games remaining.
On the surface it appears that he could be selling out for home runs at the expense of all else. Such an all-or-nothing approach is not what the Phillies need from a player who has shown a more well-rounded game in the past.
During his first two seasons, Herrera stole 41 bases in 56 attempts. Over the last two partial campaigns he has only attempted 20 steals, swiping a total of just 13 bags.
After banging 42 doubles a year ago, he is on a pace to reach barely half of that total. If you factor in his increased home run production, Herrera is about on pace to equal his overall extra-base totals from a year ago.
This is just his fourth big league season, and Herrera is still right around his career norms in many categories. His career slash figures are .286/.342/.438 and his overall 2018 numbers are at the .278/.334/.467 level. He has already set career home run and RBI marks.
Bottom line is that it would appear Herrera has just been in the typical slump that befalls most ball players at some point in a season. Working his way out of it could include better pitch selection, trying to work deeper counts, hitting for more contact, and even getting back to being more aggressive on the base paths.
He was held out of the lineup for that hard-fought 3-1 win in Boston on Tuesday in favor of the now-healthy Roman Quinn. The previous night, Herrera may have reached rock bottom.
In Monday night’s series opener at Fenway it was a third inning base running gaffe by Herrera that killed a Phillies potential rally. Then in the bottom of the fifth with Aaron Nola in the midst of a pitching gem, it was a Herrera defensive miscue that allowed the Red Sox to tie the game. Boston would eventually win it 3-1 in 13 innings.
“I want Odubel to do well,” said Kapler following Monday’s loss per Salisbury. “That’s what I think about all the time. How can we put him in a position to succeed and be the best version of himself? Because when he is the best version of himself, he’s unstoppable.”
Along with the mistakes, Herrera had a pair of hits in that Monday night game. He also had two hits the previous day at Cincinnati. So perhaps he is indeed beginning to once again find his stroke at the plate.
Perhaps the sudden presence of the dynamic Quinn as an alternate option for Kapler will provide some incentive for Herrera to focus more as well. Quinn has been given two straight starts now, one in left and one in center field. He delivered three hits in place of Herrera on Tuesday night.
If the Phillies are going to win this series with Miami and begin the process of seriously fighting to win the division, they are going to need Herrera clicking on all cylinders.
They have been mostly getting ‘bad’ Odubel for weeks now. Poor approach at the plate and erratic defensive play in the outfield.
But when ‘good’ Odubel shows up, he is an all-star caliber player who has been a difference-maker for weeks at a time. As Kapler called him, an “unstoppable” ball player. The Phillies need him to break out fully and be that player once again.
If Herrera can perform at his best over these last two months, it would help make for a seriously exciting finish to this Phillies 2018 regular season. Starting this weekend would be nice.
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