Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

Is It Really Just Sandberg? Exploring Other Explanations for the Phils' Recent Hot Streak

If you haven't noticed, or if you'd given up following weeks or months ago, the Phillies have won seven of their last nine games. For a good or even average team, this would only be slightly notable, but before this stretch, the Phils had won just seven of their last 28 games--and even that began with a three-game winning streak--so a patch of games this good feels almost like an entire season turning around.

A reversal of fortunes like this requires some kind of over-arcing explanation, and the obvious one in this case would be the big change the Phillies made up top, replacing longtime manager Charlie Manuel with third-base coach Ryne Sandberg. Asked about whether it's Sanbderg making the difference, last night's winning pitcher Cliff Lee says sorta, not really. Jim Salisbury of CSN got the quote:

We’re grinding it out a little more, just playing hard from the start to the finish, basic execution...I’ve said that from the very beginning -- if we just execute and play fundamental baseball we can beat anyone. We’ve started doing that in the last week and a half or so and the results are showing.

I’m not a guy who thinks the manager wins or loses games for us. I don’t think it was Charlie’s fault that we lost, and I don’t think it’s Sandberg that’s winning it for us, to be honest with you. But I think he has instilled more of let’s-get-after-it frame of mind and that’s what we’re doing.

But it’s the guys that are going out there and getting the outs and making the plays and swinging the bats that’s getting it done. I feel like his frame of mind and what he expects has influenced that and it’s up to us to buy into it and lay it out and we’ve definitely done a better job with that, just getting after it and playing hard and never giving up and trying to execute and play fundamental baseball. That’s how we’ve won the last 10 days.

So is it really Sandberg making the difference? An improvement in fundamentals? Let's look at some other explanations for how the Phillies have actually managed to win some games recently.

  • They've been facing some crappier competition. Let's remember that as many games as the Phillies lost recently, they lost most of 'em to some pretty damn good teams. Three to the Cardinals, three to the Tigers, three to the Braves, three to the Nats, two to the Dodgers--and all of 'em (except probably the underperforming Nats) are headed to the postseason. Now, the Phillies have had the benefit of playing three against the reeling Rockies, three against the mostly mediocre Diamondbacks, and now a series against the injury-decimated Mets. Opponents matter, and you can expect the hot streak to likely continue through three against the rebuilding Cubs after our last two at Citi.
  • They've been getting pretty lucky. They may be on a 7-2 run, but over those nine games, they've only managed to cumulatively outscore opponents 42-39. Remarkably, all but one of those seven victories were by just one run, including those three straight walk-off victories that almost managed to make people excited about Phillies baseball again. You could say that winning in those games comes down to execution and fundamentals, like Cliff posits, but luck also plays a big part with margins of victory so small--a beneficial call here or there, a grounder that finds its way up the middle, a throw that sails a foot or two wide. Play enough games in a season and eventually you'll lose three or four straight by one run, too, and it won't just be because the other team executed better, either.
  • They've been getting some starting pitching. The Phils have gotten quality starts in six of their last nine games--outings that last at least six innings without allowing more than three runs--and they've won all six. After some minor post-All-Star struggles, Cliff Lee appears to have rounded back into form, going seven innings or more in his last three starts and getting his first win since early July with his eight-inning, five-hit, one-walk and seven-strikeout performance last night against the Mets. Cole Hamels has been similarly solid, also going at least seven in each of his last three, and pitching his first CG victory of the season against the Braves a couple weeks ago. If Roy Halladay can continue on the comeback trail after his rocky return (albeit in a win) against the Diamondbacks, we might actually have a pretty decent top three for our pitching rotation again.
  • They've been getting some relief pitching, too. The unspoken hero of the recent Phils' hot streak has been closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has regained his early-season consistency over his last six appearances, giving up zero runs, zero walks and only four hits over the span, picking up two saves and two wins in the process. Far more surprising, however, has been the contribution of lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who as Salisbury points out in that same CSN article, has gone scoreless over his last seven appearances, also with zero walks and four hits, but with an impressive 12 strikeouts over that period. We'd been waiting all year for someone from our crappy bullpen to step up into dependability, and at long last--and far too late--it looks like Diekman actually has a shot of being that guy.
  • Their catcher is hitting again. Darin Ruf has been getting most of the attention recently for his hot August, and rightly so--The Babe has hit nine homers in the month, second-most in the majors to some random guy in Detroit, and now has as many homers on the season as Ryan Howard in about half the games. But have you been paying attention to what Carlos Ruiz has been doing at the same time? After a disconcertingly slow start to the season after his return from suspension and then injury, Chooch has hit at a sparkling clip .347/.373/.556 this month--numbers which spike to .455/.471/.758 (!!) if you only include the team's last nine games. It was easy to forget how huge a part of this offense Ruiz used to be when he was hitting like Humberto Quintero, but now that he's back in the saddle, it's once again impossible to imagine the lineup without him somewhere near the middle.

As always in baseball, it's impossible to quantify just how much the manager helps--are the Phillies winning more because they're focused and excited and playing together again, or are they focused and excited and playing together again because they're winning more? But regardless of how much Ryne Sandberg's installment as manager has helped the team lately, there are some more easily isolated factors that have been just as important, if not more, to their recent winning ways. Hopefully they stick around to next year, regardless of whether or not Sandberg does.

Alec Asher lone bright spot as Phillies continue to limp to finish with another loss to Mets

Alec Asher lone bright spot as Phillies continue to limp to finish with another loss to Mets

The Phillies returned home from a bad road trip Friday with only three games to play and the only thing to play for being the role of spoilers.

With the New York Mets in town looking to put a stranglehold on a wildcard spot, the Phillies, as another losing season finishes out, could be a thorn in the side of their rivals.

Alec Asher looked like he was playing the part of spoiler, retiring the first 11 batters he faced, but the Mets rallied, got behind starter Robert Gsellman, and turned back any Phillies sabotaging on this night, beating the home team, 5-1.

The two teams are heading in quite opposite directions.

The Mets, with their win, clinched at least a tiebreaker in the wildcard and guaranteed their season not ending on Sunday, the league’s final regular season date.

The Phillies on the other hand… 

“We’re certainly limping home,” said manager Pete Mackanin an hour or so after being ejected for the first time this year. “Not playing well, not swinging the bats very well.”

They struck out 14 times Friday night. And after scraping a run across in the second inning, never really looked like they were in the game at the plate.

Mackanin's ejection came in the eighth inning. Mackanin wasn’t happy with first base umpire Will Little and was thrown out of a game. Reliever Michael Mariot threw a fastball in on Yoenis Cespedes and Cespedes appeared to lose control of the bat through the strike zone. When appealed to, Little ruled Cespedes did not swing, and out came Mackanin.

"I had to get thrown out there," Mackanin said.

Perhaps he just couldn't stand to watch anymore. 

Gsellman battled through some early struggles and stymied the Phillies’ offense. Gsellman turned in six innings of one-run baseball, improving to 4-2 on the year. He allowed one run on seven hits and struck out seven.

Asher, in his last start of 2016, was the lone bright spot on this night.

With two outs in the fourth, his brief perfect game bid was ended with a single from Yoenis Cespedes. That was followed by another from Curtis Granderson. 

Jay Bruce then worked a full count but Asher couldn’t put him away. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat, Bruce singled home Cespedes to tie the score. 

A fourth consecutive single, this time off the bat of T.J. Rivera, allowed Granderson to cross the plate for a 2-1 Mets lead.

Asher’s night and season ended with a Bruce home run - his third in as many games - to lead off the top of the seventh.

“I wanted to go sinker away and just kind of got it mid-thigh belt,” Asher said. “He took advantage of the mistake.”

Asher, 24, went six-plus innings Friday, throwing 104 pitches while allowing three runs on five hits. He struck out four and walked zero.

His 2016 finishes with a 2.28 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 27 ⅔ innings pitched. He struck out 13 and walked four.

“Last year when Asher was here I recall being asked if it was a smart thing to do because he got rocked so badly,” Mackanin said. “We talked about if and when he did get back to the big leagues if he would be able to handle it. What kind of make up he had. Certainly he made an adjustment. Added a two-seam fastball which he never had. Has a plus changeup. He needs a little more work on his breaking ball, but nevertheless he’s pitched well since he’s been back. He’s done a good job.”

The Phillies bullpen hasn’t lately.

Mariot, in relief of Asher, gave up two runs in 1 ⅔ innings of relief, including Bruce’s third RBI of the night to give the Mets a 5-1 lead.

The Phillies offense then went quietly into the fall night. The Mets didn’t allow a hit from the final 12 Phillies hitters.

Their season will continue beyond Sunday.

“It’s step one of a bigger accomplishment,” said Mets manager Terry Collins. “We’re certainly pleased we get to play past Sunday.”

The Phillies are just limping.

Orthopedist on Ben Simmons' injury: 'The prognosis is good'

Orthopedist on Ben Simmons' injury: 'The prognosis is good'

On Friday, Sixers fans got some bad news when the team revealed that No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot.

The Sixers didn't give a timetable for his return, saying that they were reviewing treatment options for the 6-foot-10 point-forward.

As a guest on CSNPhilly's Sportsnet Central, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Mark Schwartz gave a little insight into Simmons' injury. Schwartz is not treating Simmons, but has dealt with similar injuries. Schwartz believes the prognosis is good for the Sixers' rookie.

"The big question is where the exact location of this fracture is," Schwartz said. "That will dictate the prognosis and the treatment. If it's at the base of the fifth metatarsal, it's usually a non-surgical treatment. It's usually a cast/boot for six to eight weeks and return to play somewhere around eight weeks."

That would be great news considering Sixers fans didn't get to see Nerlens Noel the year he was drafted and are still awaiting the debut of 2014 draft pick Joel Embiid. 

Schwartz warns that the injury could be something known as a Jones fracture, which would likely require surgery and the recovery could be three to four months. The prognosis would still be good, according to Schwartz, but other NBA players have had lengthy recoveries with a similar injury.

"The prognosis is still good, but we know that Kevin Durant had a Jones fracture and he was out for an entire season because of it not healing," Schwartz said. "But the prognosis is good, however, the question is whether it's going to require surgery or not."

For more from Schwartz on Simmons' injury and possible timetable, check out the video above.