Phillies don't need extra motivation, but they're plenty motivated

May 9th, 2024

The Phillies lost at home on Wednesday afternoon, and it was big news, because if they’d beaten the Blue Jays, it would have been 12 straight games they’d won at home. They still came away from that game with the best record in baseball, still in first place ahead of the Braves in the NL East and still looking like the team with as much to prove this season as any team in baseball, just because of the way last season ended.

You can make a pretty strong case that the ’24 season for Rob Thomson’s team really began with two straight losses at home last October, the last two games of the National League Championship Series. That was when they came back to Citizens Bank Park ahead of the Diamondbacks three games to two, came back to as much of a home-ballpark advantage as there is in the sport and seemed to be on their way back to the World Series.

Then just about everybody in Thomson’s batting order stopped hitting at once. The Phillies didn’t go to the Series. They stayed home. Made Arizona hot. Now, they’ve responded by getting good and hot after an 8-8 start, going 18-4 after that and playing at the end of the spring the way they have at the end of the last two baseball summers, when they put slow starts behind them and began grinding their way toward the postseason.

really didn’t heat up until this week. (.207) hasn’t started hitting yet. could be out for as long as six weeks with a left hamstring injury. But the Phillies have gotten terrific starting pitching and keep winning, often winning big. This weekend, they head into Miami to play the 10-29 Marlins.

We all wondered how Thomson’s team would respond to the crushing disappointment of getting upset by the Diamondbacks the way they were. Now we know.

“This is a really special group,” Thomson told me on Wednesday. “The thing that pleases me most about this club, and it’s been this way since ’22, is how they flat-out compete every night, how selfless they are, how much they enjoy each other and, on top of that, how mentally tough they are.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the early season has been how deep and consistent his rotation -- Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Ranger Suárez, Spencer Turnbull, Cristopher Sánchez -- has been. Nola gave up nine hits and four runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Jays on Wednesday -- numbers that raised his ERA to 3.67, which means it’s the highest for the group. Wheeler is at 1.64, Suarez (6-0) is at 1.72, Turnbull is at 1.57 and Sánchez is at 3.22.

Said Thomson: “Our rotation carried us early and once the weather started to warm up, the bats got going. Right now, we’re starting to get production from different people every night, and this is all happening without Nick [Castellanos] getting hot, even though we all know he will.”

There was a different way this could have gone for the Phillies after what happened against the Diamondbacks. There’s always a chance, in any sport, for a hangover after the season ended as quietly as it did in front of the loudest crowd in baseball. The Astros, who had beaten the Phillies in the ’22 World Series, were in the same exact circumstances last October as the Phillies were -- ahead 3-2 in the ALCS and going home. They lost two straight to the Rangers, and it was Texas who went to the Series. Now the Astros are 12-24 and in last place in the AL West. Only the White Sox and Marlins have worse records than they do. Wednesday night, the Yankees pounded them again.

The Phillies are in first, have the best record and are two games ahead of the Braves. , leading off, is still doing Schwarb-like stuff, with nine homers, 31 hits, 24 walks, 57 strikeouts and a .211 average. He has also scored 30 runs. Harper is up to nine homers himself. He was at .234 with just six going into his team’s Sunday Night Baseball game against the Giants. Then, Harper hit a three-run shot to center, hit a grand slam on Tuesday night as the Phillies were blowing out the Jays and might keep going like this for a month. Or more. It would be a very Harper-like thing for the star of the team to do.

They don’t have quite the star power at the top of the order the way the Dodgers do with Mookie Betts, Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman, all former MVPs. But then again, no one does. Thomson’s team remains a rollicking good show, full of pop and color and characters, continuing to make their battle at the top of the East with the Braves as compelling as there is in any division.

“I love going to the ballpark every day,” said Thomson, who has done such a tremendous job with the Phillies since taking over for Joe Girardi a little over two years ago.

“This is a very motivated group,” Thomson told me one Spring Training morning in Jupiter, Fla. Then the manager of the Phillies added that we might see a “little extra motivation” this time.

Right now, everybody can see. And not just a little.