PHILADELPHIA — Johan Rojas was trapped in a rundown between third base and home and, in the end, it was an inconsequential moment. The Phillies did not need the run Rojas created by staying in that rundown long enough so Kyle Schwarber could scamper from first to third before trotting home on a Bryce Harper sacrifice fly. But the Phillies won by four runs Sunday afternoon and that represented a watershed moment.
They did not need to use Craig Kimbrel, who has pitched 28 times since June 1; only two other relievers in baseball have appeared in more games in that span. Before Sunday, the Phillies had played in 15 straight games decided by three runs or fewer. It was the club’s longest such streak in 40 years. There is a toll — specifically on the pitching staff — when a team plays so many close games.
The Phillies are not allowed to have blowouts.
“It’s a league rule,” manager Rob Thomson joked before an 8-4 win over Kansas City. “We can’t. They’ll kick us out of the league.”
They’ve made it work. They played Sunday without Brandon Marsh, the team leader in OPS, who entered the clubhouse on crutches in the morning. He will miss at least two weeks, maybe three, with a bruised left knee. That will make Rojas, 22, the Phillies’ everyday center fielder for now.
And, because the Phillies did not acquire another proven righty bat at the trade deadline, they will try to compensate for Marsh’s loss with a bunch of spare pieces. They promoted Weston Wilson, who has crushed Triple-A pitching but has never been in the majors, to fill Marsh’s roster spot. They will platoon Wilson with Jake Cave, who has not generated much in the majors since similarly crushing Triple-A pitching, in left field. They might try infielder Rodolfo Castro, whom they plucked from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A roster in a small deadline deal, in the outfield. But he’s never played there.
The Phillies are chasing more power — they’d love to play in games that aren’t always close. They entered Sunday ranked eighth in the National League in slugging percentage. They began life without Marsh by hitting three homers with men on base. In three games this weekend against one of the worst pitching staffs in baseball, they hit seven multi-run homers. They hit 45 in the 109 games before that.
This is more how they envisioned it.
“That’s the beautiful thing in this game,” said Kyle Schwarber, who ended an 0-for-19 with a two-run homer in the second inning. “It’s going to be someone for a couple of days. It’ll be someone else for another couple of days. It’ll be someone else for another week. That’s the beautiful thing about our lineup. We have really talented players throughout the whole lineup. If we’re all going at the same time, that’s great too. We have to do our job to make sure that’s not a hole there.”
Marsh has hit .284/.369/.463 in 361 plate appearances, so there is bound to be some sort of hole. The Phillies sent him for an MRI and X-Ray on the knee he banged into the wall Saturday night and the tests revealed no structural damage. Marsh, before the game, said he would answer questions afterward when there was more clarity about his status. But reporters were escorted out of the Phillies’ clubhouse by the team’s public relations staff before Marsh appeared.
“Obviously, it’s a loss,” Thomson said. “He’s one of our better hitters. But the other guys have to pick it up. If the other guys hit like they’re supposed to hit, we shouldn’t miss a beat.”
Rojas, all of a sudden, has become an integral character in this season. He was not an afterthought before; Phillies officials were encouraged by the progress he made at Double-A Reading. But few saw him as an immediate contributor sometime in 2023. He is not a finished product. He has hit .326/.356/.395 in 47 plate appearances.
He’ll have his struggles. But, for now, it has worked.
“I’m always ready to help the team win,” Rojas said through a team interpreter. “But, honestly, I wish Marsh a speedy recovery. He brings a lot to the team. He’s like a brother to me. I know he can contribute in many different ways. So, hopefully, he’s back in no time. But, in the meantime, I’m going to take advantage of the moment and do my best to cover him.”
What is the club’s confidence in Rojas as an everyday big leaguer?
“It’s high right now,” Thomson said. “I mean, he’s playing great. So we’ll see if he can keep it going. But he looks very comfortable.”
There are teaching moments; Rojas was picked off first base with two outs in the fourth inning and Schwarber at the plate. But he’s blessed with a brand of athleticism the Phillies do not have anywhere else in the lineup. The last-place Royals, at times over the weekend, used their abundant athleticism to make things harder on the Phillies. It would not hurt to have more of that at Citizens Bank Park.
But hitting home runs, which the Phillies are designed to do more often, is important. Those homers will have to come from the star hitters. But, as Schwarber moves to a full-time designated hitter role this week, left field cannot be a total void offensively if the Phillies are going to prioritize defense in center.
The Phillies chose Wilson over Símon Muzziotti, who is on the 40-man roster and hitting well at Triple A, because they’d prefer some power upside. Thomson said an upcoming run of lefty starters — two in the Washington series — factored into the decision. But the Phillies are now committed to Rojas as the regular center fielder — no matter who the opposing starter is. So Muzziotti, known more for his defense, might have been superfluous. The Phillies are hopeful that Cristian Pache, who should begin a minor-league rehab assignment sometime this week, could soon return.
But Wilson, 28, is a relative unknown despite his International League success this season. He’s a former 17th-round pick who signed last January as a minor-league free agent after six years in Milwaukee’s farm system. He was the only player in the International League this year with a 20-20 season. No Phillies farmhand had 20 homers and 20 steals in a season since Dylan Cozens in 2016 at Double A.
Wilson is an infielder, although the Phillies are not concerned by his limited amount of time in the outfield. He’ll see some left field this week.
“He’s playing great,” Thomson said. “Hits left-handed pitching. He can play anywhere, so you have all kinds of flexibility. He runs pretty well. He defends pretty well everywhere. So, he’s a good player.”
Later in August, the Phillies will face interesting decisions when all three of Marsh, Pache and Rojas are healthy. Come September, when rosters expand to 28 players, it’s not a stretch to see the Phillies carrying all three center fielders. If Pache or Rojas isn’t starting, they could still add value with late-inning defense or base running.
Rojas, for now, has a chance to leave his mark on this team. They just need him to bat ninth and catch every ball hit in the general vicinity of center field. But he’s held his own at the plate.
“It comes down to all the daily work that I put in,” Rojas said. “All the drills I do in the cage. I have to give a lot of credit to my hitting coaches and my teammates that give me advice on how to face certain pitchers. They have more experience than me. I think those are the biggest factors.”
There’s one more thing.
“It’s been fun,” Rojas said. “I’m very happy to be here.”
As Trea Turner’s slump endures, so does the Phillies’ support
(Top photo of Johan Rojas: Kyle Ross / USA Today)