'We know we're good:' Looking to end 11-year drought, the 2022 Phillies no longer find 'ways to lose'




PHOENIX - The Philadelphia Phillies' uniforms look just the same.

The team again has an array of star players.

The Phillies still have playoff aspirations despite being overshadowed by the two baseball teams in New York.

But, oh, how these 2022 Phillies are so completely different than their predecessors of the past decade.

This is no longer a team that collapses down the stretch, breaking their fans' hearts, and being booed off the field.

"It's different, we're winning those games that we used to lose,'' Phillies veteran first baseman Rhys Hoskins says. "We're coming back late on teams. Teams make comebacks on us, and we come right back with them.

"I've lost a lot of games like that in my career, but we're winning a lot of those games now. The confidence level is the highest since I've been here.''

Bryce Harper returned to the Phillies lineup last weekend from the Injured List.
Bryce Harper returned to the Phillies lineup last weekend from the Injured List.  

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This is a team that is 73-58, winning 11 games when tied or trailing after eight innings this season, refusing to surrender no matter the circumstances.

"The last couple of years, we never gave up,'' says Dave Dombrowski, Phillies vice president of baseball operations, "but a lot of times we found ways to lose. Now, we've found ways to win a lot of those games.

"The thing that's most impressive is that they kept battling, they're not giving into anything.''

The Phillies refuse to panic, no matter how dire the circumstances:

► They lost Bryce Harper, their reigning MVP, for 61 days when he fractured his left thumb when San Diego Padres starter Blake Snell hit him with a 97-mph fastball.

► Second baseman Jean Segura was out 62 days with a fractured right index finger.

► Their No. 3 starter, Zach Eflin, hasn't pitched in two months with a bruised right knee.

► Veteran late-inning reliever Corey Knebel suffered a season-ending lat strain two weeks ago.

Yet, instead of folding, they thrived through the adversity, going 32-20 during Harper's absence, averaging 4.5 runs a game. They stayed smack in the thick of the wild-card race until Harper returned last weekend.

"I'm trying to get back and try not to screw anything up,'' Harper says, laughing. "But when I got hurt, I don't think there was ever a doubt in me personally that these guys wouldn't be all right. It was the next-man-up personality. We had so many guys, particularly our young guys, who stepped up.

"It's been fun to watch from afar, and feels great to be part of it now.''

It has been 11 years since the Phillies were last in the playoffs, once dominating the National League during a five-year period with two pennants and a World Series championship, but producing just one winning season since 2011.

Times have changed.

They're winning.

They're confident.

And they're the talk of the town once again in Philadelphia.

"Usually when [NFL] training camp starts, everyone is talking about the Eagles,'' Harper tells USA TODAY Sports, "but I think the vibe in the city is still with the Phillies. Our fan base is so enthused, and wants it so bad, just like we want it so bad.

So you can just imagine how the folks in Philadelphia were reacting this week when the Phillies came to Phoenix for a three-game series. They led 7-0 in the fourth inning Monday, and proceeded to be pummeled for the next 14 innings, outscored, 25-3, and out-hit, 27-4. Their 13-7 defeat Monday was the biggest Arizona Diamondbacks comeback victory in franchise history, and the Phillies were even worse Tuesday, losing 12-3.

So, what does interim manager Rob Thomson do?

Nothing, but stay calm.

There was not a scintilla of panic, anger or frustration.

The Phillies didn't even step onto the field until nearly game-time Wednesday, cancelling batting practice, with everyone just hanging out in the clubhouse.

The result?

The Phillies won the series finale, 18-2, with all nine hitters in the lineup producing at least two hits for the first time since 1901.

The Phillies (73-58), who are a half game ahead of the San Diego Padres for the second wild-card spot, and three games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers for the final spot, now head into San Francisco Friday for a three-game series against the reeling Giants. They'll see their former manager, Gabe Kapler, for the first time since Thomson was hired.

Thomson, who spent 14 years on major-league coaching staffs, replaced Joe Girardi when he was fired on June 3, and the Phillies haven't been the same. They've taken on the personality of their even-keeled manager. They were 22-29 when Thomson took over, and since are 51-29, tied for the third-best record in baseball.

"We couldn't have asked for a better guy to step up and take Joe's place,'' Phillies outfielder Nick Castellanos says. "He's just been lights out in every facet. I feel like managing the game, every decision he's made, is always right, as well as his temperature in the clubhouse.

"Every time that he's had to come in and say some things to us, it's been right on time.''

Thomson has become so appreciated and respected, Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber says, that if anyone from an opposing team dared take a shot at him, there would be 26 players ready to fight.

"If anyone would say something to him,'' Schwarber says, "I guarantee our whole team would jump out for him. He's got a great relationship with the guys, obviously the baseball resume is there, and he knows what it takes to get places.''

The Phillies, on their sixth manager in the last nine years, are expected to keep Thomson past this season. He should finish second in the NL manager of the year balloting behind Buck Showalter of the New York Mets and rewarded with a multi-year contract.

'

It would have been easy to surrender, of course, when Harper went down. You're talking about the reigning MVP who was off to even a better start this season,  hitting .359 with five homers, 16 RBI and a 1.095 OPS in the month of June until his injury.

It was a moment that could have turned the franchise upside down, but instead of a pity party, they went on a rampage. Their pitching dominated. Their young players raked. Their veterans stepped up.

"Missing the reigning MVP isn't ideal, we knew nobody was going to fill his shoes,'' veteran reliever Brad Hand says, "but we just kept playing your game, and trying not to do too much. It was quite impressive.''

The hitters met privately and told one another not to be a hero. Just play your game. Stay true to yourself, and good things will happen.

"We all talked about it in a group,'' Schwarber says. "We couldn't replace the production of Harper and Segura just because those are two really good players. Nobody in the room is capable of going there and filling their shoes. But what we pushed was to be the best version of ourselves.

"I think the coolest thing about it is that we had a different guy step up every single day.''

One of those young stars was third baseman Alec Bohm, who hit .335 with six homers, 35 RBI and an .848 OPS during Harper's absence. He led the kiddie corps that included shortstop Bryson Stott, first baseman Darick Hall and outfielder Matt Vierling. They combined to produce the best 52-game stretch since Harper's, 13-year, $330 million arrival in 2019.

"We don't need to be loud and boisterous or anything like that,'' Bohm says, "but we're good. We know we're good. And we know we have the team to do it.''

Says Eflin, who has been with the Phillies for seven years: "Our confidence is as high as it's been since I've been here. We expect to win every night. It hasn't always been like that in the past.''

The Phillies have just 31 remaining games on the schedule to validate that confidence. They remind folks that they won the season series against the Dodgers, Cardinals, Padres and Brewers, and are tied at 6-games apiece against Atlanta. The only contender that beat them up this year were the New York Mets, winning 14 of 19 games.

The Phillies would love to meet them again in October. Any time. Any place. They just have to get there.

"We know there's a lot of baseball left,'' Harper says, "but we're excited to see what September brings.

"Hopefully we can get Red October in Philadelphia again.

"It would be a beautiful thing.''

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Phillies confident decade-long playoff drought will end

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