It was Game 81, the mathematical midpoint of the season, and the Phillies marked the occasion with a performance that was, well, quintessentially 2018 Phillies.
Not much was expected after the second inning on Saturday night, when starter Vince Velasquez got knocked out of the game by a line drive off his right arm, just as something less than legitimate playoff contention was expected when the season began from a Phillies team that lost 96 games a year ago.
But the Phillies won anyway, 3-2 over the supposedly mighty Washington Nationals in front of a sell-out crowd at Citizens Bank Park, thanks in large part to a 24-year-old rookie infielder who was starting for only the fifth time in his career and a 25-year-old rookie reliever who had thrown 41 pitches one night earlier and was in triple-A two weeks ago.
Jesmuel Valentin tripled in the second inning and kicked off a two-run rally in the fourth with a two-run double. And Yacksel Rios — the fourth of five relievers who passed the baton after Velasquez exited with a bruised forearm — put out a two-on, none-out flame in the eighth inning to protect a one-run lead.
"I mean, how awesome is that?" said lefty reliever Adam Morgan, who started the aforementioned fire. "Those guys who are just on the cusp [of the roster], as players we know they're freakin' good. But they get their opportunity, they make the best of it, and this is their potential."
This, quite clearly, is the Phillies' potential. A year ago, they didn't win their 44th game until Aug. 19. But they are 44-37, three games behind the front-running Braves and two ahead of the heavily favored Nationals in the National League East.
It isn't a fluke either. They just completed a month of June in which they faced the NL's iron — with a three-game interleague series against the vaunted Yankees mixed in for good measure — and posted a 13-14 record. A gauntlet of games against the Dodgers, Giants, Cubs, Brewers, Rockies, Cardinals, Nationals, and Yankees was supposed to slay the Phillies. Instead, they maintain the fifth-best record in the league.
"I think we're in a really solid position," said manager Gabe Kapler, who said from the start of spring training that the playoffs were a realistic goal. "We knew that this was going to be a major test. We knew there were going to be bumps and bruises along the way and there were. But I think we went toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in baseball. Obviously we have a long way to go, but I think we're in a good position, a strong position."
Considering Velasquez's early departure, and given that it came on the heels of a 17-7 thumping Friday night in which the bullpen logged 7 1/3 innings in relief of Nick Pivetta, a case can be made that the Phillies haven't had a better win all season.
Velasquez appeared to have escaped serious injury to his throwing arm — "It was more of a scare," he said after describing himself as feeling "alive" — so the Phillies were able to revel in his astounding lefthanded peg to first base to retire speedy Adam Eaton before falling to the ground and writhing in pain.
There were other impressive moments — from catcher Jorge Alfaro's 92.5-mph throw to catch Trea Turner stealing second base to Odubel Herrera's 14th homer, matching his total from all of last season. Rios' arm should've been dragging, but instead, he cranked up his fastball to 99 mph and got Anthony Rendon to line out, dangerous rookie Juan Soto to pop out, and Mark Reynolds to ground out.
And, as June turns to July, the Phillies can begin to use the P-word without getting laughed at either. Forty-four wins in the first 81 games doesn't get them into the playoffs, but it does put them in position to make a run for the first time since 2011. Save for veterans Carlos Santana, Jake Arrieta, and Tommy Hunter, the youngest team in the majors can only dream of such a thing.