On Wednesday at Wrigley, it wasn’t just the ballpark that was scorching hot, with temps pushing 117 degrees on the field. The Phillies own the best record in baseball, after all, but perhaps hotter still was their starting pitcher, Vance Worley. Across his past six starts and 38 1/3 IP, the Phillies rookie has posted a 0.94 ERA with four quality starts while allowing just 38 baserunners. Wednesday’s eight-inning, one-run effort raised his ERA since his second stint with the big-league club began, from 0.89.
Worley is the signature contributor from a growing herd of recently foaled Phillies, because MLB-best record or no, it isn’t like the season has shuttled smoothly down the tracks of whatever master plan GM Ruben Amaro Jr. laid down for his club. To some extent, every team has to endure setbacks, injuries and ineffectiveness, every season. It’s just that, for the Phillies, the injuries haven’t mattered much -- if at all. For that, they can thank the replacements.
Even using these twentysomethings to fill the gaps, the Phillies nevertheless boast the oldest average lineup and one of the oldest pitching staffs in the league, but they’re no longer reliant on the famous names from past pennant-winners alone. Between Worley in the rotation, John Mayberry Jr. in the outfield, Rule 5 pick Michael Martinez in a utility role, and Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes in the bullpen, the Phillies have found ready cures for many of the things that have ailed them this season. With his reliable capacity for understatement, Charlie Manuel observed, “It’s real big. We’ve had some guys step in and do the job.”
The concept of replacement level is fairly straightforward in sabermetric circles -- it’s an artificial thing, a baseline that lets us scale player performance relative to an absolute standard. There’s less reliable agreement about where that level should be set, but more importantly, replacement level is not the same thing as a replacement player -- those are the guys teams actually have to use.
In the Phillies’ case, the replacements have been critical reinforcements, reflecting a better crop of talent from the farm than many anticipated. Putting Domonic Brown in right field in the departed Jayson Werth’s place was part of the plan, as was using Bastardo in the bullpen as the squad’s other lefty reliever beyond veteran J.C. Romero.
But having Bastardo step into the mix for closer? Definitely not in the script, although as Manuel drily noted after the game, “I don’t mind that kind of problem.” Having to rely on John Mayberry Jr. in center field during both of Victorino’s breakdowns? Unexpected, to say the least. And getting an assist from Stutes, an 11th-round pick from the 2008 draft and another rookie, to the point that he’s pitching in tighter games and protecting leads? A definite surprise.
But perhaps the biggest surprise from among the newly necessary next-gen Phillies was having to give Worley 10 starts, all of them long before September. With heat clocked around 90 mph, what Worley’s fastball lacks in pure velocity he’s more than made up for with a broad spread of cutters, changeups, sliders and sinkers. It’s a spread that might seem surprising for somebody just 23 years old, but its effectiveness has given the Phillies plenty of cause to take their time with rehabbing Oswalt and Blanton.
Against the Cubs on Wednesday, Worley took a no-hitter into the fifth inning. The Cubs may not be the best lineup in the league, but even so, he seemed to be cruising from the start. Getting spotted to a seven-run lead by the bottom of the fourth helped. A baserunner didn’t get as far as second base until the fifth, but after Worley allowed a run in the seventh, Manuel nevertheless let him pitch the eighth to get his pitch count up to 117. Worley noted he started feeling the load, saying, “I started to get a little tired. It was the heat, not the pitch count.” But asked if he wanted to go out for the eighth -- and for his longest spin yet as a big-league starter -- he said yes, noting after so many earlier hooks, “the pitch counts are… what’s ruining the games.”
Afterwards, the Phils’ skipper explained that Stutes’ two-inning stint on Tuesday left him feeling a little short, but there was also an element of seeming like he wanted to challenge Worley to keep on keeping on. “Letting him get up in the pitch count, we’ll see how he does his next time out.” Put on the spot and pitching this hot, Worley may give Manuel and Amaro another problem they won’t mind having, not in the very least.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.