Phillies' run to first place was built on facing down adversity | First-half review

When the Phillies return to Citizens Bank Park on Friday night to open the second half of the season, 106 days will have passed since Gabe Kapler was booed at the home opener. It will be 111 days since Hoby Milner entered a game without warming up and 44 days since Jason Heyward’s game-winning grand slam soared out of Wrigley Field.

Friday will be 24 days since the Phillies were outmuscled and outcheered on consecutive nights against the Yankees and 70 days since Hector Neris blew his second save in six games. And Friday will also be the first time in 2,562 days that the Phillies begin a second half in first place.

Reaching first place did not come without challenges —  the Phillies faced plenty of tough nights in the season’s first 16 weeks. The youngest team in baseball showed some mettle in the first half. It weathered each crushing loss and never let a losing streak extend past four games. The Phillies are still standing.

“We learned that one moment is not going to define the season,” Andrew Knapp said. “We have a lot more fight than we did last year. We’ve had tough moments this year, but we bounced back from it and came back and realized that that’s not who this team is. That’s led to a lot of our success.”

The Phillies had some crushing losses last season, too. Remember when the Dodgers hit back-to-back-to-back homers last April off Neris? That Phillies team responded by losing 24 of its next 30 games and the season effectively ended before the end of May.

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The Phillies suffered a similar loss this year in L.A.  when the Dodgers rallied in the eighth inning to erase the Phils’ four-run lead. Dodger Stadium rocked that night the way it did after the Neris game, but the Phillies’ response was different. They won the next night and split the four-game series. There was no spiral in Hollywood.

“This is a group of guys that has grown up in professional baseball playing with each other and winning alongside each other. They trust each other,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “When they do face adversity — whether it’s within a game or whether it’s a tough loss and showing up to the park the next day with a positive attitude — these guys have been through this before. And they believe in each other. That extends to our coaches. That extends to our manager. There’s a collective understanding that one game does not make a season. But how you respond to any one game can make a big difference. So far, even though we’ve had some tough losses, every single time this group has bounced back.”

The Phillies won the day Kapler was booed and then won seven of the next eight games. They weathered that storm. They pushed back against the Yankees last month to win the final game of the series and then took three of four from the Nationals, swept the Orioles, and won two games in Pittsburgh. Heyward’s homer stung, but it was just one night. Three days later, the Phillies began a stretch of eight wins in 12 games.

Their season was not finished by difficult nights. The young team has showed poise, especially in close games. The Phillies have won 71 percent of their one-run games, a season after losing 63 percent of those games.

“We’re scraping the close ones out this year and that’s making the difference,” said reliever Pat Neshek. “I knew we had it in us when I got traded last year. We were just missing that little push. What’s doing that? I don’t know. It gets contagious when you win those close games and you’re in that spot. If you’re not winning, you’re going to keep losing those games. With teams I’ve been on, you either have it or you don’t.”

The next 10 weeks will prove if the Phillies have it or not. They will play meaningful baseball in the second half for the first time since 2012 and most of the young players will be introduced to their first pennant race. The starting pistol will be sounded Friday, and  the standings will become a bit more real in the second half.

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Friday’s game with San Diego will come five days since their latest tough loss, when they blew a five-run lead against the Marlins to end the first half with a thud. Before they begin their pennant race, the Phillies must again respond to adversity. If the first half was any indication, the Phillies are prepared to respond.

“They’ve always responded,” Kapler said. “They’re a resilient bunch. They’ve always responded with positive energy the next day. They’ve always responded with youth and enthusiasm. It’s part of the value of having a very young roster. They bounce back physically. They bounce back mentally. They bounce back emotionally. So there’s no question in my mind that we’re going to come back from this break on top of our game.”