Two managers down, more to come? That’s entirely possible, if not expected, particularly given the circus Tony La Russa has created this season.
But a few notable teams have reversed their early downward trajectories without a change in the manager’s office and jumped back into the (expanded) playoff circle, now up to a dozen teams, thanks to the new CBA. That would be Atlanta and the Red Sox, a pair that shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Over in Philly, however, the immediate impact of dumping Joe Girardi a week ago is too significant to ignore. Is promoting Rob Thomson to interim manager from bench coach the reason for the Phillies’ dramatic turnaround at this exact period in time? Well, it seems too much of a coincidence, don’t you think? Eight straight victories by a team that looked like a dysfunctional mess in Girardi’s final days was not a surge anyone was predicting, but occasionally a new voice can help.
“It feels like there’s a spark in the clubhouse,” Zach Eflin told MLB.com on Thursday after the Phillies beat Brewers ace Corbin Burnes to keep the streak alive. “We’re having a lot of fun. I think everything is clicking right now.”
The same is being expressed these days in Atlanta and Boston, two cities that are firmly back in the hunt. So here’s a look at why that is, and just how concerned the Mets and Yankees should be moving forward.
ATLANTA (32-27, second place, 6 1/2 games behind entering Saturday)
This really isn’t an upset. Atlanta is the defending World Series champion, and after what Brian Snitker & Co. endured to win that title — shaking off plenty of troubles and rebounding from a 44-45 record at the break — the sluggish first two months of this season easily can be explained away as a championship hangover.
Whatever that was, it’s gone now. Atlanta was 23-27 before putting together a nine-game winning streak, extended by Friday’s 4-2 win over the Pirates, with the clubhouse crediting a Snitker team meeting for finally getting everyone’s heads straight. Since the streak began on June 1, Atlanta ranks third in MLB with an .869 OPS, and only the Marlins (69) and Blue Jays (65) have scored more than its 60 runs through Friday. Pitching-wise, Atlanta’s 2.25 ERA trailed only the also-sizzling Red Sox (1.89).
Newcomer Matt Olson may not be on an MVP track, as Freddie Freeman was two years ago, but he’s providing similar bang for the buck this season without the reported friction with franchise cornerstone Ronald Acuña Jr. And Atlanta’s nine-game winning streak matched the streak that catapulted them into first place to stay last August — not to mention shaved four games off the Mets’ sizable lead during that time. The two have 15 games left against each other, including eight in August alone.
Atlanta also has one of the softer schedules remaining, according to Tankathon.com, ranked 21st with a .492 opponents’ winning percentage.
PHILLIES (29-29, third place, nine games behind entering Saturday)
Shortly after his firing, Girardi said better days are ahead for the Phillies, who couldn’t have played any worse before his June 3 dismissal. But he probably wishes it hadn't happened quite this rapidly, and that the players hadn't started talking about their renewed enthusiasm for the game once he was out the door.
Maybe general manager Dave Dombrowski knew what he was doing with the Girardi firing. His offseason plan of relying on a pumped-up offense to cover up for the defensive flaws now seems to be materializing, with the Phillies hitting .289 with 21 home runs and a .944 OPS during the eight-game winning streak. Zack Wheeler, who was named Pitcher of the Month for May (2-0, 1.65 ERA, 40 strikeouts, five walks), started off June by beating the Angels (nine strikeouts, six innings) and the Phillies' usually combustible bullpen is putting out fires instead with the NL’s second-best ERA (1.90) during the streak (Atlanta had a 1.84 ERA).
Unlike Atlanta, Thomson’s reinvigorated crew isn’t creeping up on the Mets. They’re going to need some collapsing to get there. But the Phillies are only 2 1/2 games out of a wild card with a long way to go. And as Girardi alluded to, they also have one of the easier schedules from here, ranked 26th by Tankathon.com, with a .479 opponents’ winning percentage.
RED SOX (31-28, fourth place, 11 1/2 games behind entering Saturday)
OK, so maybe the Red Sox — based on their current predicament — aren’t what anyone would consider a serious threat to the Yankees' hold on the division. But it’s still only the second week of June, and Boston pulled itself out of train-wreck status with a seven-game winning streak that ended Thursday with a 5-2 loss to the Angels (then rebounded with Friday’s 4-3 win over the Mariners).
During that stretch, the Red Sox have MLB’s best ERA (1.89) with a rotation fronted by former Met Michael Wacha, who is 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA in nine starts this season. Offensively, the Red Sox have led the majors with an .827 OPS since May 11 in rolling to a 20-8 record in that span. J.D. Martinez, a pending free agent who passed on his opt-out during the offseason, is building a strong case for his next deal, hitting .349 with a .967 OPS. Rafael Devers is playing like an MVP, batting .335 with 12 homers, 31 RBIs and a .955 OPS.
If the season ended today, the Red Sox would be in the playoffs, and they also have 16 games remaining against the Yankees.
This weekend was supposed to feature a return to the New York spotlight for a few former headline-grabbing names with the Mets and Yankees. Instead, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman and Clint Frazier wound up on the sideline for these reunion series because of a last-minute change of plans.
Syndergaard, who passed on the Mets’ $18.4 million qualifying offer to sign a $21 million deal with the Angels, was on turn to face his former club Sunday in Anaheim, an eagerly anticipated SoCal showdown. But the Angels chose to bump Syndergaard from that nationally televised ESPN game, with interim manager Phil Nevin saying “extra rest” was the reason. As for Syndergaard’s feelings on being skipped, he avoided New York reporters during the Mets’ visit, with Newsday’s Laura Albanese reporting he was a no-show in the clubhouse during media availability.
Stroman, the former Met and Patchogue-Medford star, had been scheduled to start Wednesday in Baltimore. When that game was rained out, that raised the possibility that Stroman could take the mound this weekend against the Yankees, but the Cubs announced Friday that he was going on the 15-day injured list with shoulder inflammation. Stroman last pitched June 3, when the Cardinals roughed him up for 10 hits and nine runs — including three homers — in four innings. That dropped him to 2-5 with a 5.32 ERA.
Cubs manager David Ross said Stroman has been working through some stuff since spending nearly three weeks on the COVID-19 list and returning May 19. Last season, Stroman led the majors with 33 starts for the Mets before signing a three-year, $71 million contract with the Cubs in December.
Stroman is 2-6 with a 6.06 ERA in 11 career starts at Yankee Stadium. As for potential matchups with the Mets, Stroman’s Cubs will host a four-game series at Wrigley Field from July 14-17, then travel to Citi Field on Sept. 12-14.
Frazier was hours away from playing against his former club — the “cookie-cutter” Yankees, as he told the Chicago Sun-Times — and even had a uniform hanging in the clubhouse before he was abruptly designated for assignment. Frazier had minor-league options remaining, but the Cubs instead removed him from the 40-man roster. Frazier was hitting .216 (8-for-37) with only three extra-base hits (zero homers) in 19 games this season, which was interrupted by an appendectomy that cost him more than a month on the injured list.