Daily Times (Primos, PA)
McCaffery: Phils’ strong start is meaningful
PHILADELPHIA » The two words are spoken as if by obligation, a way to put off the inevitable spray of ill fortune bound to dampen any baseball team; a hedge, insurance if you will.
Long. Season. Adhering to that rule, the Phillies jammed those words into their post-game press obligations after Game 1 of their season, and after Game 2, and after Game 3, and after Game 4. They’ll probably stick to the script until the crack of August, when such restrictions typically are relaxed.
Never mind that it will still have been a long season to that point. It’s just the way it works.
So the Phillies are in “long season” mode, and few will argue. But this April is different for the Phils than other Aprils, and their strong start was not a typical strong start. As they rolled Tuesday into Citizens Bank Park for another game against the Mets, the Phillies already had the right to claim something meaningful.
There is no dispute that the NL East is treacherous this season, thick with Cy Young Award candidates, destined to be a sixmonth battle to survive. The challenges will be there, and they will be plentiful.
Not every team will find the same impediments at the same times, or even at predictable, convenient intervals. So in the same spirit that any baseball game can be won with a naughty, strikethree slider from a relief pitcher in the seventh as it might with a 1-2-3 ninth with a closer, the opportunities to make a difference arrive randomly.
For the Phillies, and for circumstances both expected and surprising, two of those challenges came before the end of the first full week of April.
The schedule built to intrigue early, the Phillies would open with three against the visiting Braves. That meant that before the end of their first weekend, they will have faced Max Fried, Charlie Morton and Ian Anderson. Assuming the Braves remain healthy all summer, chances are they will throw their top three at some unfortunate team in one series. The Phillies, though, were guaranteed to face that headache. The result: A 3-0 start.
If the division plays to expected form, the better teams are unlikely to be separated by more than four or five games in the final standings. To bank such a three-spot early was as vital as completing one in any chilly week in September. Yet while that sweep was unfolding, the Mets were being made to sit the weekend out as the Washington Nationals settled coronavirus issues. That meant that by the time New York arrived Monday in South Philadelphia, it would not be down to a No. 4 starter. Instead, Jacob deGrom, the Cy Young Award winner in each of the last two full NL seasons, was ready and rested.
DeGrom was spectacular Monday, barely resorting to anything but speed balls, shutting out the Phillies through six. He surely had more impressive starts in his career, but there couldn’t have been many. Yet for reasons he will regret months later, manager Luis Rojas channeled his inner Gabe Kapler and lifted his Opening Night starter after 77 remarkable pitches.
Three innings later, the Phillies were chest-bumping each other, celebrating a 5-3 victory. And how many teams begin the season 4-0 by winning against one division opponent’s three best pitchers and, through a scheduling-reality quirk, another’s franchise legend?
The Phillies pitched well, they fielded brilliantly, they hustled. They didn’t hit much. But they put a standings payment down that will help when the final standings are printed.
“I hope a lot,” Joe Girardi said, after the Atlanta series. “Last year, we struggled. We struggled in these types of games. What did we win by, 3-2, 4-0 and 2-1? But it’s a lot better than the alternative. Every game counts. I know we only played 60 games last year, but you’ve seen it come up time and time again, teams coming up a game short in a 162-game schedule. Every game counts. And April is just as important as every other month.”
That’s a standard baseball attitude, too, a borderline throw-away line. But no two Aprils are alike. Were the Phillies to have crafted their 4-0 start against, say, the Pirates and the Mets’ No. 4 pitcher, it would not have been as valuable as how it unfolded.
The Phillies had yet to play a road game, sat through a rain delay, ordered an MRI or been deflated by a walk-off home run. They’ll deal with any and all of that when it happens. They will also benefit from that sweep of the Braves.
And if they were to win any deGrom-started game all summer, it would have been a division difference-maker.
Long season? OK. But those two achievements will not be lost in the swirl.