baseball

Harper’s reckoning: Phillies vs. Braves series preview

Thanks to the heroics of Matt Vierling, the Phillies’ five-game losing streak came to a close on Wednesday night. It was great to see Vierling come through with a five-hit night, including the game winning single in the tenth. But if the Phillies want to continue to win games, they’ll likely need similar heroics from their franchise player, who hasn’t delivered many of them since his return from the injured list.

Record: 93-55 (Second place in National League East, one game back)

The last time they met

The Phillies visited Trustee Park last weekend and thanks to the efforts of Ronald Acuna, Jr, and a quiet offense, they were swept in the three-game set.

Since then?

The Braves won their first two games against the Washington Nationals before falling in the series finale. And would you look at that: The Nationals social media team actually put out a good tweet!

Game-by-game preview

Game 1: Thursday, 7:15 – Ranger Suarez vs. Max Fried

Suarez’s last start was his best in some time, as he went six innings, and only gave up one run. He was in position to earn the win before Seranthony Dominguez got blown up in the eighth. After Dominguez had another awful outing on Wednesday, is it time to worry about the Phillies’ ace reliever?

He’s given up big home runs to Acuna and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., and to be fair, those guys ruin nights for a lot of pitchers. But aside from those home runs, Dominguez hasn’t looked sharp. Considering his injury history and the fact that he already spent time on the injured list, you have to hope his struggles aren’t due to a physical ailment.

Game 2: Friday, 7:05 – Aaron Nola vs. Jake Odorizzi

Aaron Nola will get another chance to erase the “Pitches poorly in September” narrative. In his last start, he didn’t pitch a horrible game, and if it weren’t for the existence of Acuna, it might have even been an excellent start. But alas, Acuna exists, and will likely once again be in the Braves’ lineup on Friday.

You might want to pitch around him this time, Aaron.

Game 3: Saturday, 4:05 PM – Bailey Falter vs. Bailey Falter Kyle Wright

Kyle Schwarber came through with a clutch hit on Wednesday, a night after he had three RBIs. Maybe that’s a sign that he’s heating up a little?

How would you even define Schwarber’s season? You can’t really say that the NL’s leading home run hitter is having a bad season, but it’s tough to make the case that he’s having a particularly good season either. A leadoff hitter with a .312 on-base percentage is less then ideal.

I realize that he is comfortable at the leadoff spot, and they might not want to make major changes at this point of the season, but I think they need to explore other options for next year.

Game 4: Sunday, 1:05 – Kyle Gibson vs. Kyle Gibson. Charlie Morton

I’d say it would be tough for Gibson to pitch worse than he did against the Blue Jays, but I don’t want to tempt fate. He’s given up seven runs in two different starts in September, which is not really what you want out of a veteran starter.

The good news for Gibson is that his start will be at the same time that the Eagles are taking on Carson Wentz and the Commanders. With many of the city’s sports fans turning their attention elsewhere, if he does have another bad start, he’ll receive less than the normal level of vitriol on social media.

We need an MVP

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about watching Acuna’s heroics last weekend is knowing that the Phillies theoretically have a guy who is capable of performing at that level. I’ve written before about Bryce Harper’s legacy, and it doesn’t look all that great right now.

Yes, he has two MVP awards to his credit, and the Nationals did win multiple division titles when he was there. But his Nationals teams never won a playoff series, and they finally broke through to win the World Series the season after he left. Meanwhile, his new team is 0-3 in terms of making the playoffs. And now in his fourth year on the Phillies, after seeing the team thrive in his injury-related absence, they’ve stumbled upon his return.

It used to be that a series against the Braves would bring out the best in Harper. In 2019, he had an OPS of 1.016 with seven home runs in 19 games against them. But for the second straight season, the Phillies have gone to Atlanta in September, and Harper has been invisible.

If the Phillies miss the playoffs, there will be plenty of blame to go around. The pitching has been much worse since he’s been back, and I don’t think Harper has much to do with that, unless you’re of the belief that he somehow “ruined the vibe of the clubhouse.” But fair or not, if the Phillies do fall short, most fans are going to point fingers at the franchise player.

Trivia

Last series’ answer: Mariano Duncan led the Phillies with ten hits in the 1993 World Series. (I would have sworn it was Lenny Dykstra) SLDH was correct.

This series’ question: Since Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, who holds the Braves’ record for most hits at the stadium in a single season?

Closing thought

Much like the Phillies, the Milwaukee Brewers are not playing like a determined team to make it to the playoffs. But their schedule eases up with a four-game series at Cincinnati, so the Phillies can’t depend on them to keep losing games.

The Braves are a good team, but the Phillies can’t just concede defeat. They’ve beaten the Braves before this season, and there’s no reason why they can’t beat them again this weekend.

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