PHILADELPHIA — There are so many permutations of what the Phillies can do before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
But if they don’t do anything, or go after a great bat, or a starting pitcher, it’s up to two players to do something they’ve never done before in the big leagues.
For Bryce Harper, that’s playing first base. For 20-year-old phenom Andrew Painter, that’s pitching.
It all depends on finding out in the next 12 days. It’s clearly not a long time, but it should be long enough to tell one way or another if the Phillies have to address two major issues that could derail their postseason hopes.
On the other hand, the Phillies could hold their own if they get the answers they’ve been looking for.
That’s because the Phillies (52-42) are 27-10 since June 3 after beating the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3 on Tuesday. That’s the second-best record in all of baseball over that span, second only to the otherworldly Atlanta Braves.
This time, Kyle Schwarber led off the first inning with a home run, his 26th of the season. And the Phillies benefited from the better form of Aaron Nola. He had a perfect game through 4 2/3 innings, helped in no small part by Schwarber’s jumping catch off the left wall to rob him of at least one extra-base hit, if not a home run, from Owen Miller.
Beyond ‘shocked’ by Schwarber catch
Schwarber couldn’t help but chuckle to himself as he tossed the ball as his teammates roared from the dugout steps along with the crowd.
“I think everybody’s a little surprised that I get to play left field,” Schwarber said with a laugh.
And that brings us back to Harper and Painter.
Last week, Phillies manager Rob Thomson said Harper would make his first base debut during this series against the Brewers. But it didn’t happen Tuesday, and it might not happen until the Phillies play this weekend in Cleveland. If not, it may not be until next week.
The Phillies’ plan is to play Harper at first base, they can make Schwarber, rated one of the worst outfielders in the majors, the designated hitter.
Harper has been the everyday designated hitter since returning from offseason elbow surgery on May 2. The Phillies have all but ruled out Harper playing the outfield this season. So work at first base.
But it hasn’t happened yet, and Thomson blamed the All-Star break and weather for this most recent delay. Since July 9, Harper has only worked at first base last Friday and Tuesday.
The Phillies played a day-night doubleheader last Saturday, so there was no opportunity to work the field. There was a three-hour rain delay before Sunday’s game, again preventing Harper from exercising. That was followed by a day off on Monday.
“There are no more boxes to check,” Thomson said. “We just need to get him moving, get him out there and keep getting ground balls and things like that. We just haven’t been able to get him out (on the field) these last few days.”
The Phillies won’t know if Harper can properly play first base until he actually plays first base. And that will have to happen at the major league level, in the heat of a playoff run.
“It really has to be the speed of the game,” Thomson said. “And we can’t simulate that here. And we can’t send him on a rehab assignment, so we’ll just have to do it as we go.”
Thomson said even three or four games at first base before the trade deadline will be enough to determine whether the Phillies can move forward with Harper there.
If that’s the case, the Phillies could sit tight, knowing their offense should improve with Harper and Trea Turner finding their hitting swing. Harper has only 4 home runs in 226 at-bats this season. Turner, meanwhile, is reversing a slow start with 10 home runs and 21 stolen bases.
Schwarber, meanwhile, is still hitting just .189. But he has thrived at the leadoff spot since early June, which coincides with the Phillies’ streak. He has 13 home runs and 30 RBIs in his last 36 games, and has homered in four straight games.
“It’s June and July. He’s going through these streaks, and it’s pretty incredible,” Thomson said.
What’s the latest on the Andrew Painter phenomenon?
As for Painter, the unspoken plan was for him to be their fifth starter this season. When he suffered elbow pain in spring training, the plan was for him to pitch sometime after the All-Star break.
But Thomson said Painter is “still feeling symptoms” and hasn’t pitched since he was shut down a few weeks ago.
There’s still a chance the Phillies could start pushing Painter to be a reliever in September and the postseason. Or he could even serve as a starter, gradually working his way up to 3-4 innings.
The Phillies, at least, are in a better position to handle Painter’s absence than they were at the start of the season. That starts with Nola, who has had an up and down season. In his last eight starts, he has allowed 2 runs or fewer four times. He has allowed 4 earned runs in his other four starts.
The rest of the rotation has pitched well after a slow start. And Cristopher Sánchez has assumed the fifth starting job, posting a 3.26 ERA in six starts.
But there’s little depth behind the starting five. And this is where Painter, even in a limited role, could help the Phillies.
However, that is very much in jeopardy.
“I don’t know,” Thomson said when asked if Painter will pitch this season. “All I can tell you is we’re going to be very careful with this guy. We’re going to take our time, and if it means he’s not pitching this year, then so be it.”
“I’m not sure of the schedule, but we’re getting closer to August, so it’s getting late.”
So the Phillies might have to trade for another starting pitcher. And if Harper can’t handle first base, can they still rely on Schwarber to make jumping catches to the wall in left field?
“He got on there,” Nola said with a smile. “Honestly, I thought she was gone or she was going to hit the chain link fence up there. That was amazing.”
Contact Martin Frank at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @Mfranknfl.