The Phillies fans were rocking and rolling. The visiting Twins were pulling their starters in the sixth inning. By the ninth, they had an outfielder pitching and doing a Craig Kimbrel impersonation. Happy days were here again. That was Friday night.
And then the earth spun once on its axis and everything was different.
This time it was the Minnesota dugout yukking it up on the way to an easy 8-1 win at Citizens Bank Park.
The Phillies had everything going their way coming into Saturday night at Citizens Bank Park. In the first eight games of the homestand, they’d hit 21 homers and scored 60 runs. But it’s said that momentum in baseball is only as good as your next starting pitcher. Coming off a 13-2 win, that turned out to be all too true for the Phils.
Righthander Taijuan Walker lacked both command and velocity and you don’t need to have a seat in the scout’s section to know that isn’t a formula for success.
He’s had a tendency in recent starts to start slowly then begin throwing harder as the game progresses. That didn’t happen against the Twins. He didn’t throw his fastball often – just 14 of 94 pitches over his five innings – and when he did it sat around in the 90-92 mile per hour range.
He also threw only 50 strikes while walking six and hitting a batter. Under the circumstances, it’s almost shocking that he only gave up three runs. He looks nothing like the pitcher that had a 1.50 earned run average in June.
“I think it’s just that time of year,” said manager Rob Thomson. “He’s been grinding pretty hard.”
Beginning Monday, the Phillies have three open dates in 11 days. That will allow them to give him some extra rest, although the details haven’t been finalized yet. “I think that’s probably the prudent thing to do,” Thomson said.
The Twins played a role in helping Walker avoid more serious damage. After he walked the first two hitters he faced, second baseman Edouard Julien and Jorge Polanco, the next two batters swung at the first pitch. Shortstop Carlos Correa grounded out, advancing both runners. Rightfielder Max Kepler grounded out, scoring Julien and moving Polanco to third.
Designated hitter Ryan Jeffers walked but leftfielder Matt Wallner, again swinging at the first pitch, lined out to end the inning.
Walker managed to sidestep potential trouble from his other free passes. The only other runs he gave up came on solo homers by Wallner and first baseman Joey Gallo in the fourth.
“I honestly got lucky with the six walks, and only one of them scored,” Walker admitted. “We have a couple off days coming up, so hopefully I can get a couple extra days of rest and the velocity gets back up. Physically, I feel good. But it might be that time of year when I’ve just hit a little bit of a wall.
“It’s definitely frustrating. A month and a half ago the heater was good, I was feeling really good. Now it’s frustrating because I’m not at my best.”
Walker speculated that the lack of a dependable fastball was a factor in him throwing so many pitches out of the zone. “Knowing I don’t have the velocity, I have to be a little more perfect,” he said.
He’s also consciously throwing fewer fastballs, relying more on his cutter, slider and curve. “I don’t want to leave anything over the middle,” he said. “A 90 mile an hour in the big leagues isn’t going to get the job done.”
He estimated that normally he’d throw about 40 percent fastballs.
As it turned out, even if Walker had been at the top of his game, it might not have mattered. Twenty-four hours after romping past the Twins, even with Bryce Harper and Kyle Schwarber back in the lineup, the Phillies offense was unable to get anything going against Minnesota starter Pablo Lopez, who shut them out for six innings.
The closest he came to giving up a run came after Harper, who started at DH after leaving Thursday’s game against the Nationals in the fourth inning with tightness in his lower back, doubled. Nick Castellanos followed by ripping a line drive to the gap in deep left-center. But, for the third time in two games, centerfielder Michael A. Taylor raced over and made a diving catch to save a run.
Schwarber returned to the lineup after fouling a pitch off his left foot in the seventh inning Friday night but was hitless in five at bats.
The Twins put the game away with five runs in the seventh against relievers Gregory Soto and Yunior Marte.
The only real offensive bright spot was that Trea Turner continues to get on base. He had three singles and a walk to extend his hitting streak to nine games. In that span he’s 16-for-35 (.457). Thomson hinted that he could return to the top of the order soon, possibly as early as Sunday.
NOTES ON A SCORECARD
Rob Thomson offered his congratulations to the Media Little League team, whose walk-off win Friday earned them a trip to the Little League World Series in Williamsport. In a nice bit of serendipity, the Phillies will be playing the Nationals in Williamsport next Sunday night. “What a great story,” the manager said. “Hopefully we can meet up with them when we’re there.”
Thomson was asked before Saturday night’s game if the team’s recent success gave them a chance to catch the Braves and win the division. He deflected the question, probably because he’d done the math. Atlanta has the best record in baseball. Even in the unlikely event that they went just 23-23 the rest of the way, they’d win 98 games. Just to match that, the Phils would have to win 33 of their final 44 games.
The Phillies added two former executives, John Quinn and Ruly Carpenter, to the Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank Park before Saturday night’s game as part of Alumni Weekend. Former third baseman Scott Rolen, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown last month, will also get a plaque before the September 22 game against the Mets.
When another Phillies Hall of Fame third baseman, Mike Schmidt, congratulated Rolen in his pregame remarks, the crowd of 40,117 booed; some fans have held a grudge ever since he rebuffed the Phillies efforts to re-sign him and forced a trade to the Cardinals in 2002. Schmidt wagged his finger playfully. “Hey, we don’t do that anymore, right?” he chided with a smile.
The 1983 and 1993 pennant-winning teams will be recognized before Sunday’s game.
Twins RHP Sonny Gray (5-5, 3.18) vs. LHP Ranger Suarez (2-5, 3.96) Sunday at 1:35 p.m.