|June of 2018 proved a difficult test for the Phillies|
The Phillies ended May with a 31-23 record. Those eight games above .500 marked the first time since the 2012 season that the team ended May above the break-even point.
But a glance ahead at that June schedule revealed that this young bunch had a big challenge ahead of them. It would begin with a difficult road trip. Three games in San Francisco against an improved Giants squad. Three at Wrigley Field against the Cubs, one of the NL's top teams.
It didn't begin well. The Phillies dropped five of those six games. It didn't get much better on their return home. The Milwaukee Brewers, leading the NL Central, came in to Citizens Bank Park and blew their doors off in the first two games, scoring a dozen runs in each.
At that point, the Phillies were 1-7 on the month, and appeared to be fading fast. The Colorado Rockies, who always seem to play the Phils tough, were coming to town for three. That would be followed by a trip out to Milwaukee for three more with the Brew Crew.
Just as it seemed like their season might slip away, manager Gabe Kapler got his club to respond. They edged Milwaukee in the series finale here, then took two of three from the Rockies. Perhaps most impressively, they traveled to Miller Park and won two of three over a mid-month weekend.
Having now won five of seven, the Phillies welcomed another tough team to South Philly in the Saint Louis Cardinals. The Phils again captured two of three, and then won two of three in Washington as well. The only two defeats in those series came when the bullpen blew what should have been comfortable victories.
When the dust cleared last weekend in D.C., the Phillies were once again eight games over the .500 mark. And now perhaps the toughest test of all would come. The Bronx Bombers were coming to Philly.
The New York Yankees arrived in town with baseball's best record. They also brought their fans with them, as fired up Yankees fans swarmed Citizens Bank Park.
When the Yanks took the first two games, it appeared that the Phillies were getting a lesson in true contention. However, Zach Eflin road in on his white horse and blanked the Bombers in the series finale, once again salvaging Phillies fans hopes.
Now the Phillies are in the midst of a four-game weekend series with the Nationals, the first three of which will close out the calendar month. Despite a crushing 17-7 defeat on Friday night in which Nick Pivetta was driven out early by Washington, they remain six games over the .500 mark.
The Phillies have survived an extremely brutal schedule in June. A win over the Nationals on Saturday night would leave them with a 13-15 record for the month.
However, they will indeed have a losing month, their first such month this season. Cracks were revealed in every area of the roster.
In the rotation and bullpen, the lineup and bench, if these cracks are not filled by management and ownership soon, they could become gaping holes that could still sink this promising ship.
The Phillies appear to have an emerging young ace in Aaron Nola, and the suspicion is that veteran Jake Arrieta will be just fine as the #2 starter. But there still have to be questions about the ability of Eflin, Pivetta, and Vincent Velasquez. A more proven veteran addition to the rotation could prove invaluable in the second half.
Aside from youngsters Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano, every bullpen option has proven inconsistent at best to Kapler. The expected return of Pat Neshek should help. Aside from that, the club probably needs to hope for improvement from Tommy Hunter. But a veteran lefty would make a nice addition.
The bench right now has no true, veteran pinch-hitting options to strike fear into the opposition. When either Aaron Altherr or Nick Williams aren't starting in the outfield, they are easily the best such options. After that, it's either Pedro Florimon, Jesmuel Valentin, or Dylan Cozens.
And the regular everyday lineup is very inconsistent. The Phillies are 18th among MLB's 30 clubs in Runs scored. They are 15th in Home Runs, and 19th in both Steals and OPS. Defensively, the club ranks just 27th in Fielding Percentage.
To me, one part of the Phillies problems defensively has been the juggling of some position players, as well as the playing of a couple out of their accustomed positions. I don't see them changing their philosophy in this regard in the short term, so inconsistent defense could remain a problem for now.
General Manager Matt Klentak and owner John Middleton are squarely under the spotlight beginning in July and moving through the coming off-season. The foundation appears to be here for the next contending Phillies team. But these cracks are very real, and they need to be filled with serious ball players.
Some improvement will come from young players currently on the roster improving. But for guys like Scott Kingery and Rhys Hoskins, that will mean more stable playing time at a comfortable position. For someone like Nick Williams, it means an everyday role.
But much of the push towards true ultimate championship contention will have to come from the addition via trade and/or free agency of more talented players.
The Phillies dipped their toes in such waters this past off-season by adding Arrieta and Carlos Santana, as misguided as the latter signing was for their future. They'll need a couple more of those moves to stay in contention this year, and to move to more consistent contending status in the coming years.