The seating bowl was like a floodplain, its patches of blue expanding steadily throughout the game until the playing surface looked like an island surrounded on all sides by a three-tiered wave.
The Phillies were three games out of first place, with a chance to take three of four from the preseason favorites, and their $20 million-a-year Cy Young veteran on the mound. Yet when the 12th inning arrived, you questioned not the motivations of the tens of thousands missing, but those of the smattering that remained.
The Phillies are in an interesting place right now. Outside of the clubhouse and dugout and executive suite, there is an overwhelming ambivalence regarding this team. The theories range from Mother Nature to the standards set by the Eagles and Sixers, but a more obvious explanation is that the general public simply does not yet believe in this team.
The interesting part is that this team damn sure believes in itself, a reality that was on full display as the circle around home plate erupted in a sea of white jerseys and blue sports drink coolers after Andrew Knapp launched a 3-2 pitch into the right-field seats to give the Phillies a 4-3 victory with two out in the bottom of the 13th on Sunday afternoon. In taking three out of four from the Nationals, they won their fourth straight series against a playoff-contending NL team, including five of seven against Washington.
"I think it shows that we are here to stay," Knapp said. "Obviously there are a lot of games left and we have to keep playing well, but we're up there with a lot of those teams."
The longer this run of theirs stretches, the harder it is to ignore the possibility that the whole of the roster really does amount to something greater than its individual parts would suggest. They aren't devoid of talent, especially not at the top of the order or the top of the rotation. But look at the rosters of the teams with whom they are competing and you'll see the star power that the Phillies lack. Of the seven NL teams who entered Sunday with a winning record, only the Phillies and Cardinals lacked a hitter with an OPS of .880 plus.
The Nationals are one of those teams brimming with the kind of name-brand players that make the turnstiles roll and the disbelief suspend. And when you look at the components they possess in their lineup and rotation, you suspect they are more like those notoriously slow-starting Phillies teams of 2008-11 than the big-ticket bust their record suggests.
Yet you'll have a hard time convincing a winning clubhouse that a team is anything but what it's record says. This is especially true after a game in which the whole very much exceeded the sum. After Jake Arrieta left the game for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the fifth, the Phillies' much-maligned bullpen rattled off eight straight scoreless innings, three of them by a pitcher who had arrived from triple A that morning.
"In the grand scheme of things, we beat them in back-to-back series," said winning pitcher Nick Pivetta, who talked his way into the game and logged a pivotal scoreless 13th that otherwise would have featured utility infielder Jesmuel Valentin. "That's huge when you're playing divisional teams, I think we all know that."
Knapp was another crucial cog, coming off the bench in triple-digit heat to hit his first walk-off home run since double A. Back then, the players around him looked a lot as they do now, something the catcher insists is not coincidence.
"I think staying in ballgames is something you have to build the character of a team with," he said. "We've kind of played together enough to know that we'll pick each other up and stay in ballgames. But I think a win like that, especially against Washington, is huge for our season right now, and we're going to build off of that."
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The flip side is that there are plenty of teams that have made it through three months on grit. The odds say the eventual fate of this team will rest on individual performances on the field. For the standings to look in September as they do now, they will need more performances like this one from Arrieta, who recorded nine of his 10 ball-in-play outs on the ground. They'll need to hit for extra bases more frequently than once every 13 innings (Knapp's home run was preceded by six singles). And they'll need the bullpen to turn in more outings like Sunday, when they made do with rookie closer Seranthony Dominguez unavailable to throw.
And they might need even more, which sets up an interesting month of decisions for the front office as it monitors the pre-July 31 trade market.
In the meantime, the Phillies won't spend much time worrying about the legitimacy of their 88-win pace.