It started in Milwaukee. There, after losing nine out of 10 games and getting ready to take on the top team in the National League, the Phillies’ hitters got together to hold a meeting.
Discussed were how hitters can approach plate appearances and how the team could give the Phillies one last chance to make a run at the top of the standings. It wasn’t big stuff that hitters don’t already talk about, but this time something started a fire.
“I don’t know if it’s a fire,” Jimmy Rollins said. “But there’s something going on and hopefully it turns into a fire.”
Following Friday night’s 6-2 victory over the first-place Washington Nationals (see Instant Replay), the Phillies (42-51) are warming up. They have won five in a row and are eight games out in the NL East. This comes against two division leaders on the tail of a stretch in which the Phillies lost nine of 10 and were swept in Pittsburgh.
Sure, eight games is a lot to make up and the team’s body of work through the first 90-plus games of the season hasn't instilled much confidence that the Phillies can overcome the deficit.
But crazier things have happened.
“Fortunately we’re not completely out of it,” Rollins, who hit two home runs and drove in three runs to pace the offense Friday, said. “We’ve been in this situation before and come back before to win the division and the World Series. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but we’ve been there before.”
If the Phillies are in the midst of a flip-the-switch moment of the season, the before-and-after numbers are pretty telling. During a 16-game stretch in which the Phillies went 3-13 and nearly buried their chances, they batted .148 with runners in scoring position -- worst in the big leagues.
However, during the five-game winning streak, the Phillies are hitting 13 for 36 (.361) with runners in scoring position.
Was it simply a matter of the Phillies figuring things out with a meeting in Milwaukee?
“That’s hard to say,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “I know they had a good meeting about where we were and the adjustments that needed to be made and the key guys seemed to come up big in situations. From that point on it’s been different guys each day, so that’s what it takes. Now, it feels like the whole lineup is chipping in and doing their part.”
Yes, crazier things have happened. The Phillies overcame gigantic deficits to win the division in 2007 and 2008 and needed an epic second-half surge in 2010 to win it easily. But that was then. The Phillies, like Rollins, know that’s ancient history. In fact, Rollins says the Phillies’ brass probably have come to terms with making changes regardless of whether they get back into the race before the July 31 trade deadline.
But the Phillies are happy to look forward and let things shake out over the balance of the season.
And based on how they have played since that meeting in Milwaukee, the Phillies think they will be a tough team to face going forward.
“Playing this way we can [win the division],” Rollins said.
It’s hard to argue with Rollins. On Friday night, the Phillies scored two runs in the second on a one-out double by Dom Brown and added two more in the third on Rollins’ first homer of the game. A two-out double with two on by catcher Cameron Rupp scored another run in the sixth before Rollins capped off the scoring with a solo homer in the seventh.
Mix that offense with quality pitching like A.J. Burnett provided, allowing two runs on five hits over 7 2/3 innings, and it’s easy to see why the Phillies feel good. Sure, the Phillies are hitting, but they also continue to pitch. During the winning streak, the Phillies have outscored the opposition, 31-13.
How can it be a coincidence when the starting pitchers have pitched into the seventh inning in four out of five games, allowing just five runs in those games, while also winning the game in which a starter lasted just 5 2/3 and gave up seven runs?
Meanwhile, the relievers have not allowed a run in nearly a week with 10 straight scoreless innings. Even with Kyle Kendrick allowing seven runs in 5 2/3 innings in Milwaukee, the Phillies’ starters have a 3.05 ERA during the streak.
Yes, good hitting can be contagious.
“We’re playing good ball, man, we’re playing good ball,” Burnett said. “Any time we can put up runs like that it’s only going to push us more. It’s good to see this team click on all cylinders.”
The Phillies will try to make it six in a row Saturday night when Cole Hamels (3-5, 2.87) faces righty Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.47).
Both pitchers are from San Diego -- Hamels is five years older -- and will match up for the third time of their careers. The Phils and Nats have split the previous two outings in which Hamels and Strasburg pitched against each other, with Hamels allowing four earned runs with 14 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings (2.70). Strasburg has 19 strikeouts and one earned run in 14 innings (0.64).