April 15, 2024

Phillies observations on 2024 Kyle Schwarber, Bryce Harper’s fall, the pitching and more

PHILADELPHIA — Kyle Schwarber still won’t say it. His right knee bothered him all of last season — more than anyone knew — but even now he declined to detail the issues. He did not undergo any offseason surgery. It will never make aesthetic sense — a burly designated hitter batting first — but Schwarber looks different in 2024.

He is slimmer. He is … less slow.

“I feel healthier, for sure,” Schwarber said. “I guess there’s just things you have to deal with throughout the course of the year, right? There are times it could be a little puffy or something like that.”

Schwarber stole a base Saturday. Then, on Sunday, he went from first to third on a Trea Turner single at a crucial moment in the seventh inning. That allowed Turner to steal second base. Both runners scored on an Alec Bohm bloop single. The Phillies needed those two runs in a 5-4 win that prevented the mighty Braves from sweeping them on the season’s opening weekend.

Kyle Schwarber steals third base in the first inning on Saturday. (Kyle Ross / USA Today)

“The way we lost the first two games was disappointing,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “Getting down 2-0 in the first inning again, that can be demoralizing. But our guys kept fighting and got it done.”

Schwarber punched back in the bottom of the first with a solo homer. “It gets the momentum a little back in our hands,” Thomson said. Schwarber is here for the homers. It’s everything else that has so far caught attention.

“He is moving better,” Thomson said.

That doesn’t mean he is going to plop Schwarber in left field. The Phillies want him to be their DH. The record for games batting leadoff in a season by a DH is held by Paul Molitor in 1991. Molitor did it 109 times for the Brewers that year. Schwarber could eclipse it.

He’s there because he has exceptional on-base skills. Last season he had a .343 on-base percentage despite a .197 batting average. He was too pull-happy, and that was one reason for the unsightly batting average. There were mechanical issues Schwarber could not correct. He might have compensated for the knee problems, but he could not say for sure whether it affected him at the plate.

He just knows it feels different now.

“If the ball’s on the outside part of the plate, I’m putting myself in a good position to hit the barrel,” Schwarber said. “And if it’s going to the left side, that’s great. That’s perfect contact. That’s who I want to be versus doing the out-in-front stuff. Trying to put myself in better hitting positions.”

He had three hits in two days against Braves lefties.

“Just great,” Thomson said. “He’s using the field and he’s had a couple of base hits up the middle or to left-center field so far. So that’s what he needs to do.”

Harper’s fall

About 70 minutes before the first pitch Sunday afternoon, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and general manager Sam Fuld inspected the scene of the crime. Fuld tested the padding on the railing above the camera well where Bryce Harper tumbled Saturday. Dombrowski investigated the netting. The two executives were joined by Howard Smith, the club’s vice president of business affairs.

There could soon be a new railing there.

That particular section of the railing is about a foot lower than the rest that extends down the first-base line. It’s lower even than the dugout railing. This is done to accommodate the TV broadcast camera that is stationed there.

Harper might have thought he was drifting toward the higher railing, then flipped when there wasn’t enough to support him. The protective netting above that rail is somewhat angled, and that created the optical illusion that went viral on social media. The ball landed on the warning track behind Harper. But that is because it hit the netting that extends further into the field than the railing.

Harper, who did not play Sunday in what the Phillies described as a scheduled rest day, was not available to pinch hit because he was sore. He said he will play Monday against Cincinnati.

It was odd for Harper to rest in the third game, but he did not play much in the final week of spring training and the club’s medical staff exerts an abundance of caution with its players. They submit suggestions to Thomson.

Harper had a cut on his left pointer finger but pushed back against the idea that any soreness prevented him from playing Sunday.

“I feel good,” Harper said.

This is the second time Harper has fallen into a camera well; he famously did it in Cleveland on the first day he played first base. Is there a conversation to have?

“Sure,” Thomson said. “But it’s Bryce. He’s going to play the game hard all the time. It’s tough to rein him in. That’s just the way he is.”

The Phillies, at least, can raise the railing to help him.

Pitching — bad and good

The Phillies allowed 21 runs in a 12-inning span from Opening Day through the second game. No one was spared from the wreckage. Their pitchers didn’t miss enough bats, and Atlanta’s lineup will punish mistakes. In the third game, Ranger Suárez settled after a shaky first inning and struck out seven. That set a better tone.

No Phillies pitcher not named Zack Wheeler looked better this weekend than Jeff Hoffman, who began his second outing Sunday with a fastball up and in to Ronald Acuña Jr. He mowed through the top of the Braves lineup on 14 pitches — while featuring more splitters than usual.

José Alvarado endured a forgettable Opening Day. Then, on Sunday, he was throwing 96 mph cutters again. The cutter averaged 93 mph last season and it didn’t have the same effect as it did in 2022. It was still good, just not always elite. Alvarado said his ideal cutter velocity is 95 mph. It looked elite on Sunday.

“He’s as good as they get coming out of the bullpen,” Thomson said, “when the cutter is that velocity and has that much depth.”

José Alvarado pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to close out the Braves on Sunday. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

This and that

• The Phillies put Luis Ortiz on the injured list with a sprained ankle and replaced him with Nick Nelson, who will be the long man. They could face a decision on Connor Brogdon, who was exposed in two outings to begin the series. He is probably holding Orion Kerkering’s spot until April 9. Even so, the Phillies need Brogdon to at least throw strikes when used in low-leverage situations.

J.T. Realmuto took some of the better at-bats by any Phillies player in the first weekend. His swing is simplified and on time. He looked to have a two-run homer Sunday — a day after swatting a solo shot — but the wind kept it in the yard.

Johan Rojas did not have great at-bats. He did beat out a potential double-play ball that extended the decisive seventh inning, so that was something. The Phillies will have to practice extreme patience with Rojas at the plate, and that can be difficult when the games matter.

“He’s doing fine,” Thomson said.

• The Phillies and Braves won’t see each other again until July 5. The Phillies saw enough in the first weekend. They know they have to be sharper against a juggernaut Atlanta roster.

“I mean, it’s a really good team,” Bohm said. “Obviously, there’s a lot of respect on both sides. It’s a lot of the best players in our game on the field when we’re matched up. They obviously put it on us those first two games. So we really wanted to come out and get one.”



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(Top photo of Kyle Schwarber: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)