In every six-month baseball season, there are a few standard mile markers. Memorial Day is one. The all-star break is another. And then there is tomorrow. On Sept. 1, active rosters may be expanded beyond 25 players, which is both a license for managers to carry 12-man bullpens and a signal that the sprint to the finish line is underway.
For teams playing out the string, September can be tedious. But for teams locked in a pennant race, these final few weeks are often a thrill ride. The Phillies, with all their flaws and warts, are in the latter category for the first time since 2011. Do yourself a favor: Take a few seconds this month to think about that — and then get back to screaming about why the Phils can't play defense.
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When the Phillies returned to Citizens Bank Park on Monday after eight days away, they were three games out of first place in the National League East with 32 remaining. They had 70 wins, four more than their total from all of last season. And at 41-22, they had the best home record in the league.
But for three games against the rival Washington Nationals, Citizens Bank Park was barely half-full.
The Phillies averaged 21,623 fans for the three-game series, down from their season average of 27,281. That included Tuesday night, when Aaron Nola outdueled two-time defending Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer for the second time in less than a week in front of an announced crowd of 21,083, the smallest gathering since June 13 against the Colorado Rockies.
We bring all this up not to tsk-tsk fans for staying away. As always, people have their reasons, even if two of the most common (first few days of school; oppressive heat and humidity) seem to ring a bit hollow for this ear. It might just be, at least judging by the e-mails we receive here at Extra Innings, that many fans continue to have difficulty connecting with this Phillies roster despite its surprising four-month run of success.
Regardless, you can bet the low attendance numbers caught the eye of Phillies general partner John Middleton. With money to spend and a superstar-laden free-agent class set to hit the market this winter, Middleton was already itching to make a splash. The Phillies have been linked to Manny Machado for more than a year, and there's a sense in some corners of the league that they adore the star shortstop so much that Middleton might as well just let him name his price.
But if the Phillies stay in the playoff race in September and attendance doesn't pick up, it could be interpreted as a rebuke of a team that has a homegrown ace (Nola) and slugger (Rhys Hoskins) but lacks a true megastar. And that would make you wonder if Middleton might feel compelled to go all-in on both Machado and Bryce Harper, the other marquee player likely headed to free agency.
After all, if any team has the payroll flexibility to pull off that daily double, it's the Phillies.
Two months after being banished to the minors for a second time this season, Hector Neris is reemerging as the most important reliever in the Phillies' bullpen for the final month of the season. How's that for coming full circle?
At the bottom of that story, there's news that top prospect Sixto Sanchez will pitch in the Arizona Fall League, a possibility that general manager Matt Klentak hinted at only a few days ago.
Who here remembers Brian Mazone? He was all set to make his major-league debut for the Phillies in 2006 until the game got rained out, and he wound up never pitching in the majors. Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post authored a terrific piece on Mazone's heartbreaking tale.
Tonight: Hazleton's Joe Maddon leads the Cubs into town, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Phillies will add Sept. 1 call-ups before facing Cubs, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday: Aaron Nola vs. Jon Lester in Phillies-Cubs series finale, 1:35 p.m.
Monday: Phillies open a six-game road trip with a Labor Day matinee in Miami, 1:10 p.m.
If you haven't already heard, this was manager Gabe Kapler's candid, if not humorous explanation for why the Phillies decided to start Aaron Nola on Sunday against the Cubs when they could have given him extra rest and pitched him Monday in Miami: "Mostly because Nola is awesome."
But seriously, folks, there were several reasons to keep Nola on his regular day. Chief among them: He hasn't lost at home this season. And with this slight adjustment to the rotation, they will get him two, possibly three, additional starts in South Philly.
Nola is 9-0 with a 1.94 ERA in 13 home starts. Most impressive, he has allowed only four homers in 88 innings this season at Citizens Bank Park. If Nola keeps it up, he will be only the second Phillies pitcher to not lose a decision in a minimum of 10 home starts in a season. The other: Tommy Greene, who went 10-0 with a 2.99 ERA in 16 starts at the Vet in 1993.
(Oh, and in case you missed it, props to the Phillies for creating the "French Quarter," a rooting section for Nola. Remember the "King's Court" in Seattle when Felix Hernandez used to pitch at home? This sounds similar. Fans in Sections 108 and 109 on Sunday will receive a Nola T-shirt and Mardi Gras beads, a nod to the ace's Louisiana roots.)
Question: I am a daily reader. Why is the media, including you, giving the Phillies' GM a free pass for not picking up a proven closer before the trade deadline? Yes, I know the Phillies' defense is terrible, but the No. 1 issue this team has had all season is no reliable closer. We have gone through [Pat] Neshek, [Tommy] Hunter, Seranthony [Dominguez], [Victor] Arano, [Adam] Morgan, [Hector] Neris, [Luis] Garcia — and all have failed. We have tried almost everyone in the bullpen. If the Phillies don't make the playoffs it will be because they continually blow games they should win. They could have traded for Cole [Hamels] and made Vinny [Velasquez] the closer. — Mike L., via e-mail