PHILADELPHIA -- Manager Joe Girardi answered a question on Monday afternoon about production and patience in a 60-game season.
“You could pull a plug too quick on someone, and you may miss out on what they’ve done in the past and some big numbers,” Girardi said. “That’s what I’m not going to do.”
Girardi believes it is best to bet on hitters with track records, even in a 60-game sprint to the postseason. Many of his hitters with extensive track records pummeled the Braves in Monday night’s 13-8 victory at Citizens Bank Park, helping the Phillies split a four-game series against their National League East rivals. It was the first time in franchise history that the Phils hit four home runs and scored 10 runs in the first two innings of a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
It snapped Aaron Nola’s nine-start winless streak, dating back to his last victory on Aug. 20 in Boston. On Monday, he allowed one run on two hits and one walk in eight innings, and he struck out 10.
But the night revealed perhaps the Phillies’ best and only path to the postseason: to lean on a rotation that has enjoyed solid performances from Nola, Zack Wheeler and Jake Arrieta (a combined 2.49 ERA in seven starts) and to score a bunch of runs like they did on Monday, which featured a grand slam from Didi Gregorius, a three-run big fly from Bryce Harper, a two-run home run from J.T. Realmuto and solo shots from Roman Quinn and Jean Segura.
The bullpen continues to be a major concern, and there are not many relievers with track records to indicate a turnaround is imminent. Nick Pivetta (six runs in one-third of an inning) and Trevor Kelley (one run in two-thirds of an inning) turned a 12-run lead in the ninth inning into a five-run lead to force Héctor Neris to loosen up in the ‘pen. It is the second time in six days that Neris warmed up in the ninth inning because the relief corps could not hold a commanding lead. He had a one-pitch, one-out save in Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Yankees on Wednesday, when the bullpen turned an eight-run lead into a four-run lead.
The bullpen has a 9.87 ERA (34 earned runs in 31 innings). It is the highest mark in baseball.
“I mean, we’re going to rely on our starters, and we have to,” Harper said, asked if the offense and rotation can make up for the bullpen’s early shortcomings. “I think guys like Nola and Wheeler and Jake … with all the good teams in baseball, you try to rely on your starters as much as possible to get through those innings and then have a Tommy [Hunter] or a Neris in the back end of the bullpen and get then in the game and win games. You bring in [José Álvarez] to face a lefty, [Adam] Morgan to face a lefty, things like that. But you’re going to rely on your starters as much as possible. And when your starters aren’t doing well, you’re going to have to rely on your lineup to score the runs to win games.”
“I'm frustrated for the guys that gave up the runs, because we want them to contribute and we want them to get going,” Girardi added. “It does not dampen that we won the game, that Aaron pitched great and we swung the bats extremely well.”
Girardi pulled Nola after eight innings and 89 pitches because he has seen too many pitchers suffer injuries this season, and perhaps because of the shortened ramp-up to the regular season. He knew Nola could handle a higher pitch count, but he had not experienced more than six up-downs since last year.
“Aaron did not want to come out,” Girardi said. “But sometimes I feel that it's my job to protect players from themselves, right? And I feel bad pulling him. I told him. I understand if he's upset with me. I'm OK with that. But the prize is not in the month of August. And we need him to be healthy.”
It was the correct call, regardless of how the bullpen has pitched. Any bullpen should be able to hold a 12-run lead.
“That’s going to come around, I know it is,” Nola said. “It’s still kind of early for us.”
In a tight game late next month, maybe Nola will finish it.
Girardi knows that. Nola does, too.
“I feel it would be a different conversation if it was a close game,” Nola said. “I could see myself going out if it was a close game. Maybe there will be another chance for that. I hope there is. But on a different note, we got a 'W' -- that’s all that matters.”
Wheeler (2-0, 2.08 ERA) faces the Orioles in Tuesday's series opener at Citizens Bank Park, set for 7:05 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV. He signed a five-year contract with the Phils in December, and he has fared well through his first two starts, allowing only four runs (three earned) in 13 innings.