WASHINGTON – Kyle Gibson hasn’t been around for every last maddening tease provided by the Philadelphia Phillies the past five years, a period marked by glitzy acquisitions, managerial turmoil and a magnetic force that seems to pull star-studded squads back toward .500 every autumn.
Yet the veteran right-hander is jumping into his second pennant chase with the club after his July 2021 acquisition, and has seen enough to diagnose what he believes has ailed them – and portends better days ahead.
And after a disastrous start that saw multiple stars slump, manager Joe Girardi get fired and the club sink 12½ games back of the New York Mets in a rugged National League East, Gibson isn’t too proud to do a little math.
Or a lot of math.
“What would send us over the hump?” Gibson mused before the club swept a doubleheader from the reeling Washington Nationals. “In my time here, I don’t think we’ve won the games we should’ve won, against teams we should’ve beat. I think if we’re able to take care of those games, we’re fine.
“We don’t play the Dodgers any more. We don’t play the Brewers any more. We have a couple against the Giants and we’re going to be finished with the Padres after this trip. We’re almost done with the Mets already. And we have all our games left against the Nationals and most of our games against the Marlins, and the three teams in the (NL) Central that are struggling at the bottom.
“We have faced, and weathered, the storm of the schedule that we’re gonna have. And now I think we’re getting hot at the right time and it’s up to us to play and win the games we’re supposed to win.”
The storm, almost certainly, has passed. Despite spending $179 million to lure sluggers Nick Castellanos and Kyle Schwarber to Philadelphia – and laying out $742 million for five players since the $330 million pact to lure Bryce Harper to Philly in 2019 – these Phillies sputtered badly. They lost eight of their first 12 games before a 3-10 stretch cost Girardi his job as Castellanos (.210 average the last three weeks of May) and Schwarber (.184 through 48 games) got off to unsteady starts.
Girardi’s dismissal, from both inside and out, seemed like a long exhalation. And since then, the Phillies have taken off.
They staged an eight-game winning streak immediately after bench coach Rob Thomson was promoted and are 13-2 overall since he was named interim manager. From 22-29 under Girardi, they’re now 35-31 overall.
There is so much chicken-and-egg with this Phillies team that to ascribe this hot streak to the new person in the manager’s chair – particularly in light of Schwarber and Castellanos, to name two, showing better vital signs – would be oversimplified.
“You just need a different voice to connect with the individuals in the clubhouse,” club president Dave Dombrowski tells USA TODAY Sports of Thomson, who spent a decade on the Yankees’ coaching staff, including a stint as Girardi’s bench coach before taking the same role under Girardi with the Phillies in 2020. “There may be various reasons that may be behind that, but you just need a different voice.
“We’ve played in a loose fashion. We’ve always battled hard and been a club that comes back the last couple years. The one thing we haven’t done is win those games. And we’ve been winning those games of late.”
And while baseball is not as simple as an NBA or NFL coaching change where the personnel might more furtively perform for a new leader, Thomson has reaped the benefits of veterans finding their level, and younger players gaining comfort and confidence.
Kids in play
Approaching four and a half years with the Phillies, Harper has more than lived up to the standards of his 13-year, $330 million contract. His 15 homers, .326/.391/.622 slash line and majors-best 86 extra-base hits since last midseason has the reigning, two-time MVP primed for a repeat.
Yet Harper has always realized he needs help.
As a Washington National, he lobbied for the services of catcher J.T. Realmuto – who the Phillies would acquire in 2019. He delighted in the hiring of Dombrowski, a Hall of Fame-caliber executive whose dial is always set to win now – and then saw him reel in Schwarber and Castellanos to deepen the lineup.
And as a baseball rat who studies the deepest corners of every organization, he is thrilled to see organic, internal development in Philadelphia.
“It’s no secret that we haven’t drafted well in the last 10 years or so,” says Harper. “Everybody knows that; we talk about it. It’s getting the guys we have to come up and change the narrative a little bit.
“Having that influx of good young guys that can really help your roster – that’s where teams are successful – to count on your minor leagues to develop, to help the big leagues. That’s huge for us.”
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It just so happens he’s pretty tight with the new help.
The Phillies used the 14th overall pick in 2019 on shortstop Bryson Stott, who has known Harper since Stott was a T-baller and Harper played with Stott’s older brothers back in Las Vegas. Harper’s sister Brittany cheered for a squad coached by Stott’s mother at El Dorado High School.
Now, Stott stays with Harper and his family at spring training in Clearwater, Florida, and somewhat jokingly claims “it’s not even close” that Harper’s son, Krew, considers him his favorite uncle. (Bryan Harper, Actual Uncle, would beg to differ.)
Stott and Bryce Harper take great pains to separate their close friendship in the clubhouse, where Stott, who made his major league debut April 7, assimilates like any rookie. Dombrowski says since Stott was drafted before he took the job, he had no idea the Harper-Stott connection when he visited their Class AA Reading (Pennsylvania) affiliate in 2021 and heard rave reviews about Stott’s baseball aptitude, and his proclivity to ask advanced questions of the coaching staff.
Now, he’s yet another player who, for whatever reason, has thrived under Thomson’s regime.
Injuries to Didi Gregorius (knee) and Jean Segura (broken finger) opened up playing time for Stott, who began the season slashing .143/.195/.169 in 127 plate appearances at the time of Girardi’s dismissal. He posted a .244 average with an .872 OPS in his first 45 plate appearances since Girardi’s firing, including a startling walk-off, three-run homer that followed Harper’s grand slam to beat the Angels in Thomson’s third game.
Gregorius is back, Johan Camargo is on his way and Segura will eventually return, though perhaps not until September. For now, it’s Stott’s runway, and he believes it’s an environment in which he can thrive.
“He never wants anything to blindside you,” Stott says of Thomson. “If you’re not playing, he’ll come up after the game and let you know you’re off the next day, and when you’re going to play again. Just so you’re never at home and thinking if you’re going to play or not.
“His philosophy is, if you know what you’re doing, it’s a lot easier to prepare. He’s been unbelievable and it’s been great to play for him.”
At their healthiest, the Phillies can boast an MVP, All-Star or Rookie of the Year at seven of nine everyday positions, with first baseman Rhys Hoskins a possibility to join them after hitting 13 home runs with an .807 OPS to start the year. Yet it is Stott, center fielder Matt Vierling and former No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak – who has bounced between the Phillies’ outfield and Class AAA – who offer the promise of youth in an increasingly younger man’s game.
In Friday’s 8-7, 10-inning win to cap a doubleheader sweep, it was the best of both worlds: Harper, relegated to DH duty because of a torn elbow ligament, came off the bench to rip a game-tying, two-run double. And Vierling hit two homers, including a go-ahead ninth-inning shot.
“The best clubs I’ve been with throughout my career have a combination of good veteran players and young players. What we’ve lacked here over the years are having good, younger players,” says Dombrowski. “We’re getting to the point where some of them are coming up and playing for us. But it’s not easy getting over that hump.
“One thing that Rob Thomson does is he’s patient in talking to them in that regard.”
Still, the task ahead is daunting. The Phillies trail the Mets by eight games and the Braves by 2½. Even the expanded playoff format is a crapshoot, with five viable candidates jockeying for the three wild card berths this summer.
It would help if the best was still ahead of their veterans, and that may be the case.
Nobody loves Dads ‘n Grads season more than Schwarber, whose 18 home runs are tied for the NL lead. He’s hit seven in 60 June at-bats, one year after he slammed 16, including nine in six games, to reestablish his free agent pedigree.
Schwarber is batting .300 (18 for 60) this June after batting .185 through May.
“When he’s locked in,” says Thomson, “it’s pretty special.”
Schwarber nods to Castellanos, two lockers down from him, as the next to go on a tear, and he began a five-game set at Washington with four hits in his first seven at-bats. The team has scored six or more runs in 11 of its last 17 games.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” says Cy Young runner-up Zack Wheeler, “coming in.”
Now, to sustain it.
The unbalanced schedule did the Phillies few favors, feeding them a steady diet of Mets as that club waged a red-hot start even without ace Jacob deGrom. Philly needs a similar stretch to volley back.
And after three months of volatile performance, and five years of just-missed disappointments that led from Gabe Kapler to Girardi to Thomson, the Phillies once again have a shot at ending a decade-long playoff drought.
“Do I believe we’re a team that can go 33-17 like the Mets did in their first 50 games? Yeah, I think we are,” Gibson insists. “I think that’s how we’re going to get back into it and end up a playoff team – by playing consistently.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Philadelphia Phillies rallying after poor start to 2022 MLB season