Are the Phillies NL East contenders again?

071113jonathanpapelbonusa.jpg

Are the Phillies NL East contenders again?

Charlie Manuel has a way about him. You’ve probably noticed. Things he does. Things he says. Things he believes.

One of his favorite talking points is as simple as it is true. You’ve heard him repeat some variation of the same thing almost every year for various reasons. The thought, distilled to its essence, goes like this: to be a good team, you have to beat good teams. Or, put in the parlance of his friend Ric Flair, to be the man, you have to beat the man.

These Phillies need to beat a lot of men and a lot of teams between now and the trade deadline if they hope to work their way into the playoff conversation (if not the actual race itself). You know it. The players know it. Manuel certainly knows it. On Thursday, the manager dusted off one of his favorite truisms, repurposed it for the here and now, and summed up the Phillies’ current situation nicely.

“There comes a time, if you’re going to be a playoff-contending team, you’re going to have to beat some good pitchers along the way,” Manuel said before the Phils faced excellent Nationals hurler Jordan Zimmermann. “And we’re supposed to beat some good pitchers at times. I know Zimmermann is a good pitcher. I like him. I like everything about him. But at the same time, I have seen us score runs on him. I think that we have enough left-handed hitting to score runs on him. Hopefully we can do it.”

They did it -- barely. The Phillies pushed two earned runs across the plate against Zimmermann in their 3-1 win over the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park (see game recap).

Kyle Kendrick pitched an excellent game and got the win. Jonathan Papelbon came on to get the save. But the Phillies had four errors, and it took yet another pinch-hit RBI by Kevin Frandsen to put them ahead late. It was a tense night. But the Phillies won -- the game and the series. Lately, they’ve made a habit of doing the latter. The Phils have won four of their last five series.

It has been a while since the Phillies played well enough to make you check the out-of-town scores each night. That is the fun part of baseball -- the standings and the race and the long slog toward the playoffs. It has been a while since the Phils were good enough to prompt that kind of behavior.

That’s what the Phils have done recently -- they’ve made themselves relevant again. They are 24-14 against the NL East, the best record of any club in the division. You can understand, then, why general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said “no one is running away” with the division and “no one is invincible," (see story).

Which leads us back to the buy or sell question that’s been asked repeatedly for the last few weeks. With the way the Phils are playing, it’s hard to imagine Amaro giving up on a team that just took a series from the Braves and another from the Nationals.

“I considered us less of a contender last year,” Amaro said. “We’re in a better spot this year.”


That’s a hard point to argue. But what might it take for the Phils to actually make the playoffs?

“That second wild card, if you look at it, you might stand a chance of getting in at a mid-80s win [total], something like that -- 84, 86, 87,” Manuel said. “There’s been teams that got in the playoffs before playing three or four over .500 or something like that. With the second wild card, that’s kind of the structure it adds -- mid-80s to high-80s might get you that second wild-card berth.

“I’ve always looked at winning the division. I thought if you win enough games, the other things, the wild card, would take care of themselves. I think it’s going to take, in this division here, probably 88 to 92 wins. Somewhere in that area. If some team wins 93 to 95, they’re definitely going to win this division.”

Forget 93 or 95 wins. Forget 92. Even with how well they’ve played, those numbers seem well out of reach. Let’s go with something more realistic. We’ll use the 88 wins Manuel referenced as a starting point.

The Phillies are 46-47. They have 69 games remaining. To reach 88 wins, they have to go 42-27 the rest of the way. That’s a .642 clip. For a team that’s still under .500, that seems like a big chore. But considering how the Phillies have played of late, it’s possible to imagine a future in which they’re among the teams pushing toward the playoffs.

But that’s for later. For now, the Phillies won another game and another series. They’re relevant again. That will do for the moment.

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts despite awful numbers vs. Max Scherzer

Tonight's lineup: Ryan Howard starts despite awful numbers vs. Max Scherzer

Despite having awful career numbers against Max Scherzer, Ryan Howard is in the Phillies' lineup against him Tuesday night.

Howard, 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts against the Nationals' ace, bats fourth. 

Howard seems to be coming back to Earth. He hit .357 with seven home runs, four doubles and 16 RBIs in his first 20 games out of the All-Star break, but has gone 2 for 16 with two singles and eight strikeouts since.

Jimmy Paredes gets another start in left field. Peter Bourjos is out of the lineup for a fourth straight game.

The rest of the lineup is standard. Odubel Herrera, who bats second, is 6 for 19 with five walks in his career against Scherzer (see game notes).

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Maikel Franco, 3B
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Cameron Rupp, C
6. Aaron Altherr, RF
7. Jimmy Paredes, LF
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Updated: 5:20 p.m.

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, surprisingly in the lineup (see story), is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

Best of MLB: Mets win in 10th on Yoenis Cespedes' walk-off HR

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes homered with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning to give the New York Mets a 2-1 victory over the Miami Marlins in the first game of a pivotal series between National League playoff contenders Monday night.

Jose Reyes dashed home to score the tying run in the eighth on a dangerous collision at the plate, and the Mets pulled even with Miami for second place in the NL East. With its seventh victory in nine games, New York remained 2 1/2 games behind St. Louis for the league's second wild card.

It was an exhilarating win for the Mets, who appeared to be at a major disadvantage on the mound in the opener of a four-game set. New York was shut out for six innings by Marlins ace Jose Fernandez, but Mets starter Rafael Montero also put up zeros in his first major league start since April 2015 (see full recap).

Martinez's 13 K's, throwing error give Cards win
MILWAUKEE -- Stephen Piscotty scored on a throwing error in the ninth inning after Carlos Martinez struck out a career-high 13, leading the St. Louis Cardinals over the Milwaukee Brewers 6-5 on Monday night.

With two on and nobody out in the ninth, Yadier Molina dropped down a bunt. Reliever Tyler Thornburg (5-5) threw to third base for a force out, but Jonathan Villar's throw to first was wild, allowing Piscotty to score.

After Martinez held Milwaukee to one run over six innings, the Brewers scored four runs in the seventh to take a 5-3 lead. St. Louis tied it in the eighth on a two-run homer by Randal Grichuk off Corey Knebel.

Seung Hwan Oh pitched a perfect ninth for his 14th save. Miguel Socolovich (1-0) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings to pick up his first win.

Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong each hit solo home runs for the Cardinals (see full recap).

Royals keep rolling, take down Yankees
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Dillon Gee kept the Royals' momentum going with six sharp innings, Alcides Escobar hit a three-run homer and Kansas City beat the New York Yankees 8-5 on Monday night to open their three-game set.

Gee (6-7) allowed only four hits and a run in the latest impressive start by the Royals' staff, helping the reigning World Series champions win for the 18th time in 22 games.

Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon drove in runs off Michael Pineda (6-11) during a five-hit salvo in the first inning. Pineda then retired 15 straight before getting into a two-on, no-outs jam in the seventh that led to Escobar's homer off reliever Blake Parker.

Starlin Castro drove in two runs for the Yankees, the second in a four-run eighth inning that forced Kansas City manager Ned Yost to summon fill-in closer Kelvin Herrera (see full recap).