The hits just keep on coming for Philadelphia sports fans. Of course, it started with the Eagles’ improbable run to the Super Bowl championship, continued with the Villanova Wildcats’ dominate performance on the road to winning March Madness, and keeps rolling with the Sixers’ march to what I believe will be the Eastern Conference Championship. It even may include a serious run at the playoffs for this year’s version of the Fightin’ Phils.
With a little more than 10 percent of the season over, the Phillies are a surprising 11-7, ahead of the Washington Nationals and only two games behind the Mets, going into Friday night’s game against the Pirates. If the season ended today, they’d face Atlanta in a one-game playoff for the second wild-card spot.
Now, of course, the season doesn’t end today, and it’s a long haul to October. But let’s give the Phils high marks for some of the things they’ve done to field this interesting and improved team. First, kudos to Matt Klentak and Andy MacPhail for their off season moves. Signing Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana in free agency bolstered a lineup that needed power and a pitching staff that needed a strong veteran presence. These two players have already shown flashes of brilliance, and I have no doubt that over the course of the season, they will make us a far better team. My good friend Dave Montgomery tells me that the best is yet to come, and notwithstanding a very young lineup, that we have more potential stars in the Phillies’ farm system.
I even think our new manager, Gabe Kapler, who had one of the worst starts of any manager in my memory, will turn out to be an asset. Of course, lifting Aaron Nola on Opening Day after just 67 brilliant pitches turned out to be a disaster, but Kapler wasn’t alone. Consider that Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora lifted Chris Sale after 6 innings of shutout ball in which he had struck out 10. Boston went on to blow the game, one of only two losses so far for the Red Sox this year. Kapler riled up a lot of fans and some bloviating experts (e.g. Howard Eskin) by saying that he was going to rely on “analytics.” Interestingly, I heard Kapler on the radio answer a question from Angelo Cataldi (also a bloviator, but a beloved one) about analytics and he explained that really it just meant using prior information to help you make decisions. For example, if a good hitter had only gotten 1 hit in 23 at-bats in his career against the pitcher currently on the mound, even if he was one of the team’s better hitters, you might pinch-hit with a less productive hitter who happened to be 7-for-20 against that pitcher. Explained like that, analytics makes a lot of common sense. Best of all, Kapler promised he wouldn’t be a slave to analytics but would often go with the “eye test.”
I believe him because he’s already demonstrated, to our benefit, that he is willing to go against the “conventional wisdom” — which holds that you never use a closer in a tie game on the road. You only bring him in if your team takes the lead, and there is a save situation. Kapler has gone against the conventional wisdom, and it resulted in two victories in Atlanta. On March 30, in the bottom of the 8th inning, Atlanta tied the game at 4-4 and had the lead run on base with nobody out. Kapler correctly sensed that his team needed a stop to have any chance to win so he brought in his closer, in a tie game on the road and, heaven forbid, in the 8th inning. Hector Neris tossed a 1-2-3 inning, and the Phils went on to win in the 11th. Eighteen days later, on April 17, Kapler did it again. With the score tied 1-1 going into the bottom of the 9th, he brought in Neris again to face the heart of the Braves order. Neris kept the Braves hitless and the Phils proceeded to score four runs in the top of the 10th for a 5-1 win.
So, the Phillies’ young manager went against the prevailing practice and grabbed two wins that might have otherwise slipped away. I have a hunch that this young innovator may turn out to be a very good manager to lead this budding team. Let’s hope so because Philly fans sure as heck don’t want the good times to end!