Ruben Amaro Jr. was the most popular coach at the Boston Red Sox' 2016 winter caravan.
Amaro had recently been hired as the Red Sox' first-base coach after seven seasons as general manager of the Phillies. For most of his last year in that job, he engaged several teams, including the Sox, about trading for Cole Hamels before finally sending the ace pitcher to the Texas Rangers.
So, upon meeting Amaro at the Red Sox' annual January fan festival at a casino in Connecticut, rightfielder Mookie Betts, catcher Blake Swihart and others had one burning question: How close did any of them actually get to becoming Phillies?
Former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington "and I had a lot of discussions through texts and through voicemail and just speaking directly about possibilities and my interests and some of the things that he might be willing to do," Amaro, now coaching first base for the New York Mets, recalled earlier this season. "But nothing ever got real hot just because of their status as a club. I don't think they were considered a quote-unquote contending team by the time the July 31 deadline rolled around. Had they been in it, I think they would've been in more heavy discussions."
So there. Betts is the best player on the best team in baseball — the Red Sox are 50 games over .500 and on pace for 115 wins — and the front-runner to be crowned American League MVP, but he was never much of an option for the Phillies. No need to daydream about what he might have looked like in red pinstripes when he visits Citizens Bank Park for the next two nights.
Besides, the Phillies have their own talented core to boast about. That group — led by slugger Rhys Hoskins, ace Aaron Nola and a young pitching staff — represents the biggest reason the Phillies are one win shy of matching their total from all of last season and contending for a division title one year earlier than most people expected at a time when the National League lacks a dominant team.
"I think it's an indication that our players have developed," manager Gabe Kapler said, citing the emergence of rightfielder Nick Williams as a prime example. "That's probably the most notable thing. It was a good team in spring training. We felt confident in that. But we also knew in order for us to have a really good year, we would have to have our players take some steps forward. I think we've seen that with a number of our guys."
Now, though, it will up to that young core to finish the job. It's a 45-game sprint to the Phillies' first postseason appearance since 2011. And for the majors' youngest roster, the games will begin to get more intense, with the margin for error decreasing in proportion to the ratcheting pressure. The outcomes will be magnified, too. Losing two of three games in San Diego, for instance, will be perceived as particularly damaging to the Phillies' playoff chances, though beating the Red Sox this week would swing the pendulum considerably in the other direction.
Perhaps that's why righthander Jake Arrieta, one of the few playoff-tested veterans in the Phillies clubhouse, keeps stressing the importance of maintaining an even keel as the schedule grinds toward September.
"Try not to focus too much on what's going on outside this clubhouse," Arrieta said. "Whether Atlanta loses or Washington wins or loses, let's just try to win a game that day. And if we do that and end up staying healthy, we're going to end up in a good spot, the spot we want to be in."
The schedule isn't exactly softening. Over the next 19 games, the Phillies will play the Red Sox twice, the Washington Nationals six times and three games against the Chicago Cubs. Arrieta noted that most of those games — 13 of the 19, in fact — will be played at home, where the Phillies have an NL-best 38-18 record. And after dropping series on the road against the non-contending Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds and Padres within the last month, they will need to make hay at home.
It all will begin Tuesday night against Betts and the Red Sox, whose downward trajectory to last place in 2015 took them out of the Hamels sweepstakes.
"It's a good stretch, a tough stretch. We know that," Arrieta said. "We play a significant amount at home. That's nice. We know our home fans will be eager to watch some good baseball against good teams. We feel like we've played Washington well. We've played the Cubs decent. We're ready for these series. It's going to be competitive."