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Series Preview: The Phillies are still figuring out who they are...

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For the Giants’ sake, can they wait a week to come up with their answer?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

The 2010 Giants were obviously a power pitching team, but they were also a mishmash of young players and steely veterans who could also play some really great defense. It all worked, even if it never worked smoothly; but, as good as they were, they fell from 1.5 games back of the division-leading Padres at the end of July to six games back by mid-August.

They had built up high expectations because of 2009, but after a lackluster first half of 2010 (47-41) and a large deficit it in the division, it looked like they were about to squander all that potential. They went 6-10 to close out the month, but despite all that losing, they found themselves just 4 games out of first place to start September. They were becoming disappointments.

Here’s what Grant wrote on the morning of August 31, 2010, after the Giants’ 2-1 loss to the Rockies in San Francisco:

I think last night’s game broke me.

But here’s also what he said in that game recap the night before:

And when the Giants hit three ropes in the bottom of the ninth, all caught, it doesn’t make me want to erupt in rage. It makes me think that, hey, our luck’s gotta turn around some time!

So this was a game of hope. This just made this team stronger.

Ahem.

And then the Giants went out and won the next game to end August just 4 games back. Grant, working under Vox Media’s previous posting requirements, only wrote this for the recap of a 5-2 win:

Torres? Posey Torres Torres Bumgarner Torres Posey Bumgarner. Bumgarner Torres Posey, Posey Posey Posey Wilson. Bumgarner? Torres, Posey Posey. Torres Posey Bumgarner Posey Torres. Posey Posey Posey, Torres Torres Torres, and Bumgarner.

Also, Posey. Also also, Torres. Bumgarner too.

Posey Torres Torres Bumgarner Posey Posey. Wilson? Wilson. Bumgarner Torres Posey, Posey Posey Torres.

That doesn’t even meet the minimum word count requirement for a post!

(The joke here was that Andres Torres and Buster Posey were the fuel behind a 3-run eighth that broke a 2-2 tie. Brian Wilson threw eight pitches to record his 37th save.)

But! He did have the first comment on that post-game thread:

sniff sniff What is that smell, San Diego? sniff sniff Is it doubt? sniff sniff I think it is. Six losses in a row. They’re still sitting pretty, but I love the smell of doubt in the morning. sniff Oh, god, that’s not doubt….

Of course he wound up being right — Grant is always right — and the Giants managed to coalesce just in time to make their big run to the NL West title: a 22-12 run over the final five weeks, timed perfectly with a 10-game losing streak from the Padres.

The 2019 Phillies don’t necessarily have to make the same kind of run because there’s that extra Wild Card spot, but they still have seven games remaining against division-leading Atlanta and they still have 48 games remaining.

Their next four will be against the Giants. These two teams saw each other just last week, so nothing has changed. After winning two out of three against the Giants, they lost two out of three to the White Sox at home and split a two-game series in Arizona. They haven’t looked great for large stretches, but there’s still time to put it all together. If the Mets and Giants can do it, any team can.

But they’ll need to figure out just what kind of team they are and coalesce around that identity. Are they Bryce Harper’s team?

By bWAR, he’s just the fifth-most valuable player on the team (1.7 bWAR).

Are they a bunch of mashers? Not really. Sixth in the NL in runs scored (541) and 11th in home runs (146). They’ve hit more home runs than only the Cardinals, Pirates, Giants and Marlins and their .420 team slugging percentage trails the Padres, Pirates, and reds. The MLB average wOBA is .318 — the Phillies’ lineup is at .314.

Are they a pitching and defense team? Well, they certainly turned around their defense from a year ago. At +21.8 Defensive Runs Above Average, they’re the 2nd-best team in the National League. Last year, they were 14th in the NL with -35.5 Defensive Runs Below Average with a -146 Defensive Runs Saved.

On the pitching side, they’re actually a lot better than we’ve been led to believe. Their bullpen fWAR of 3.9 if tied with the Pirates for fifth-best in the NL. Their 15.1 fWAR for starting pitching gives them the third-best rotation, behind the Mets and Dodgers and just slightly ahead of the Nationals.

So, maybe the Phillies really are a pitching and defense team. They’re going to have to decide if that’s the case, though. I and the Giants shouldn’t be in the business of doing that.

There’s a slight chance that Jay Bruce returns to the roster this weekend, which is the equivalent of the Giants getting back Alex Dickerson. Bruce has been out since July 16th with an oblique strain, the same injury Good Ol’ Dick is suffering through right now. Oblique injuries are unpredictable and likely to adversely affect a player the rest of their season, but the psychological impact of Old Man Bruce’s presence seems necessary.

It wasn’t like he raised the Phillies to Dickersonian heights as soon as he was acquired from the Mariners. The Phillies were just 16-17 with him in the lineup — although, he did hit 10 home runs in 33 games before the injury — but, as soon as he went down, they went on a six-game losing streak. But then again, they’re 20-22 since his injury.

Either way, Bruce in the lineup, Bruce out indefinitely, they’re going to need a series or a series of series around which to coalesce. Their pitching hasn’t magically improved, of course, and that’s going to be a problem over the final 48 games, unless the team can come together and persevere. It’s as much a must-win series for them as it is for the Giants, despite both team’s fortunes being at nearly opposite ends of the spectrum.

Philadelphia is at the tail end of its rebuild. The Giants are maybe a 25% of the way into theirs, but their nearly-dead playoff hopes — literally, a 1% chance (as of 8/8) — represent that last burst of endorphins before death while the Phillies’ 15% odds are a disappointment.

Pitcher to watch

The Giants won’t be missing Aaron Nola this time around. Last year, Nola placed third in NL Cy Young voting behind a 17-win, 2.37 ERA, 9.5 K/9 season recorded over 212.1 innings. About two-third of the way through his 2019 season, he has a 10-2 record, 3.60 ERA, and 10.3 K/9 (142.1 IP). His walks per nine are up dramatically versus last season, from 2.5 to 3.6 and his home runs per 9 rate has nearly doubled (0.7 to 1.3).

Let’s blame the new ball on both issues. Makes sense that he’d throw fewer pitches in the strike zone if he fears he’d give up more home runs by doing so.

He features a two-seam and four-seam fastball and, movement aside, throws fastballs in the range of 92-95. Very tough to hit on just a fastball level. But then there’s his curveball, which he can both throw in a sweeping style —

— and 12-6 style:

The Giants’ days of beating up on Nola ended abruptly with his seven-inning, 12 strikeout performance last May. It was his highest strikeout total of the season. He scattered five hits, allowed a run, and walked no one. In two prior starts, he’d combined for 10.1 IP, 10 ER, and just 7 strikeouts. Ah, maturity.

Hitter to watch

Yes, we’ll all be watching Bryce Harper, especially since this will be his first game in San Francisco since rejecting their 12-year offer in the offseason. If Jay Bruce comes back, watch out for him as some sort of hope switch. Otherwise, if he’s not back, keep an eye on Corey Dickerson, the Phillies’ biggest deadline pickup.

The 30-year old left fielder had a .373 OBP with the Pirates this season and after acquiring him, the Phillies have plugged him into their leadoff spot. He’s not your typical leadoff guy, though. He has just one stolen base this season and just 23 stolen bases for his major league career (in 41 attempts). He doesn’t walk very much and in his career he’s been a 4:1 strikeouts to walks guy, but this year, he’s lowered that ratio to about 2:1 (28 strikeouts to 13 walks) while also slugging .566. He’s averaged about 35 doubles a year over the past three seasons and has 18 this year, though none so far in Philadelphia; however, two of his five hits for his new team have been home runs.

Prediction

A great number of people will be surprised to learn of or be reminded that the Phillies traded for Jason Vargas at the deadline, too.

Also, the Giants will have fewer hits in game one than the number of complaints that will be tweeted about game one’s YouTube-only broadcast, despite the fact that the same means that allow you to register complaints online will allow you to view the game. Speaking of which, here’s the direct link to watch Thursday’s game: