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It’s Getting Late Early for the Free-Falling Phillies

Philadelphia players keep referencing the turnarounds of recent World Series winners, the Nationals in 2019 and Atlanta in ’21, but this once-promising team is in much worse shape than either of them.

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Editors’ note, 10:39 a.m. ET: Shortly after this story was published, the Phillies fired manager Joe Girardi. This story has been updated.

PHILADELPHIA — In recent days, as the losses piled up and a promising team plummeted nearly out of contention, the Phillies have begun quoting statistics at one another: The 2019 Nationals, who won the World Series, started the season 19–31. Last year’s championship Atlanta team was under .500 as late as Aug. 4.

It’s true that both of those clubs looked hopeless just months before emerging victorious. It’s also true that the Phillies are in worse shape than either one.

According to FanGraphs, Washington had a 22.2% chance of making the playoffs after its 31st loss. That figure was 22.3% for Atlanta after its last day with a losing record. Philadelphia enters Friday—fresh off a come-from-behind win against a strong Giants team, and in a season with an expanded playoff field—at 22–29, with a 21.5% chance.

Phillies first baseman Rhys Hoskins reacts after striking out

First baseman Rhys Hoskins is among the Phillies struggling this season, as he has a career-low .222 batting average.

That 6–5 win kept the Phillies 12 ½ games behind the Mets for first place in the National League East and finished a 3–7 stretch against Atlanta, New York and San Francisco that included three straight walk-off losses. It wasn’t enough to save manager Joe Girardi’s job; the team fired him Friday and elevated bench coach Rob Thomson on an interim basis.

“It has been a frustrating season for us up until this point, as we feel our club has not played up to its capabilities,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in a statement announcing the firing. “While all of us share the responsibility of the shortcomings, I felt that a change was needed and that a new voice in the clubhouse would give us the best chance to turn things around.”

Asked before Wednesday’s win for the most frustrating part of the past few days, right fielder Nick Castellanos did not hesitate.

“The lack of winning,” he said.

He added, “The last couple games, even going back to the Braves, have just been like a repeated kick in the gut. It’s definitely a test of character, just as a collective group.”

And are they passing or failing?

“I can’t give a grade,” he said, “because the season ain’t over yet.”

No, but it’s getting late early. A deep NL West and adequate NL Central might combine to produce all three wild-card teams, and the Mets have ripped off to a 35–17 start, making them the clear favorites in the East.

When the season began, it seemed that Dombrowski was trying an unusual new strategy: a $229 million team that could not field at all but could hit like crazy. As it turns out, this team cannot field at all and also is not hitting. The Phillies have a league-worst -26 defensive runs saved, and only one member of their regular lineup, reigning MVP Bryce Harper, has an OPS+ better than 125. (His is 166.) Catcher J.T. Realmuto has an OPS of .695. Left fielder Kyle Schwarber has 12 home runs but a .192 batting average. Castellanos recently went 18 games without going deep.

And the news keeps getting worse in Philadelphia: Early last month, shortstop Didi Gregorius hit the injured list with a left knee sprain. He could be back as early as Friday, which is good, because on Tuesday, second baseman Jean Segura broke his right index finger. He is expected to miss 10 to 12 weeks. On Wednesday, Harper, who has been playing since April with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow that pushed him from right field to DH, was scratched with right forearm soreness. (He said he thought he could play Friday.)

On Sunday, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that some of the players’ relatives had commented that the team seemed lifeless, and that in some cases the players agreed. Girardi spent the next few days arguing with reporters about the concept of fun.

“I think you’d be more worried if I had guys cracking up and making jokes while we were losing games,” Girardi said Tuesday. “Wouldn’t that be a problem? I mean, this story is actually funny to me. Are you watching Schwarbs dance over there? Dancing right now? The guys are doing their thing in the clubhouse. It’s just kind of funny to me. I don’t think Philadelphia would react too well if our guys were cracking jokes while we were losing. I don’t know any city that would.”

Still, some players concede the attitude has not been that of a championship ball club. Castellanos said good energy “usually comes [after] wins and good results.” Righty Kyle Gibson said he has seen improvement over the past few days. He highlighted the spark in the dugout during a late rally Tuesday night. The Giants scored a run in the top of the 10th and the Phillies matched it, then after a disastrous top of the 11th put the Giants ahead by three, the Phillies brought the tying run to the plate. (They still lost, but silver linings are hard to come by these days.)

“I don’t know that we’ve done that a whole lot this year,” Gibson said of the comeback attempt. “When we’ve been down three in extras or down three late, I don’t know that we’ve kind of had that fire.”

And after Wednesday’s win, even Girardi admitted, “I think we really needed it bad.”

Reliever Jeurys Familia said the problem was not one of talent. “We’re trying too hard,” he said. “We’ve got to do something different.”

He added, “It is frustrating because when you look around the room, we've got great players. We’ve got everything you need to go out there and win.” And yet they keep losing.

They are not the 2019 Nationals or the ’21 Atlanta team. They are the ’22 Phillies. They will find out whether that is enough.

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