It must have been something for the Phillies to board their flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia on Sunday, knowing that they went 5-2 on a road trip against the Mariners and Dodgers, but knowing it could have been 6-1.
They needed one more strike.
They had two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Phillies closer Corey Knebel threw a first-pitch curveball to Cody Bellinger for a called strike. He threw a 1-1 fastball for another called strike. The Phillies needed one more for their second four-game road sweep of the Dodgers in franchise history, and just their fifth four-game sweep of the Dodgers overall. But Bellinger tripled on the next pitch, Chris Taylor walked and Gavin Lux dropped a hit into the right-field corner to score both runners.
The Phillies lost, 5-4.
It resurfaced those annual concerns about the Phillies’ bullpen. It blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning for just the fifth time in franchise history in a loss to the Mets on May 5. It blew late-inning leads on Thursday and Friday against the Dodgers, only to have the offense bail it out.
Then Sunday happened.
But no doubt the Phillies returned to Philadelphia trying to keep everything in perspective. They left Philly on May 8 with the fifth-worst record in the National League at 12-16 (.429). They were scuffling and they faced a tremendous challenge on the road.
West Coast trips are never easy.
But something clicked.
Specifically, the offense. The Phillies scored 50 runs on the trip. They batted .287 with 14 home runs and an .857 OPS. They have the best offense in baseball, based on their .750 OPS and .431 slugging percentage. They have scored 172 runs, which ranks third behind the Angels and Dodgers.
Bryce Harper hit .609 (14-for-23) with three home runs and a 1.904 OPS. He did not play on Sunday because he received a PRP injection to help heal the tear in his right elbow. He might not play Tuesday against the Padres at Citizens Bank Park, but he should resume DH duties no later than Wednesday.
If this is the Phillies’ offense the rest of the way, with Harper again playing like an MVP in the middle of it, it could be a fun summer. They should win a few games based on firepower alone. They should win a few more with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Ranger Suárez rounding into form in the rotation.
But there is no question the bullpen needs to be better if they want to go where they expect to go.
Phillies relievers have a 4.38 ERA, which ranks 27th in baseball. They allowed 11 runs in 13 2/3 innings in four games against the Dodgers. They struck out 15, but they walked 15. Jeurys Familia let the Dodgers back in the game in both of his appearances this weekend, including Sunday. José Alvarado has a 7.45 ERA in 13 appearances overall.
Knebel was on the mound in the May 5 loss to the Mets. Sunday was his second blown save of the season. He saved two of the five wins on the trip. He makes a better 1-2 pitch to Bellinger in the ninth, he saves three on a six-win trip.
So the Phillies flew home, probably feeling like they took a nice step forward, but no doubt wondering how much fun the flight back would have been with a sweep of the best team in the league.