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Turner takes off, Mercado shines in his first start in the Major League

Turner takes off, Mercado shines in his first major league start, originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

CHICAGO – Two weeks ago, Michael Mercado was in Allentown and started against the Norfolk Tides.

Taijuan Walker was healthy. Spencer Turnbull was healthy. The idea that Mercado would be making his first major league appearance just two Tuesdays later on the mound at Wrigley Field in front of baseball's best team would be far-fetched.

Yet he appeared in the Phillies' series opener against the Cubs, making the first of what could be five starts before the July 30 trade deadline.

The 25-year-old rookie made some rough contact here and there – mostly to Cody Bellinger – but made a promising start in the Phillies' rotation, allowing just one run on two hits in five innings in a 6-4 win – a good performance for each team's fifth starter.

Mercado wasn't even on the Phillies' starting pitcher roster to begin the year. They acquired him in November from the Rays, who ran out of room on their 40-man roster, and he began the season as a reliever in Triple-A.

But the difficulties of regular players such as Kolby Allard, David Buchanan and Mick Abel, to name a few, gave him a chance.

“It was actually (assistant pitching coach) Brian Kaplan who came up with it because we had a couple of guys who weren't pitching well in Triple A early in the season,” Rob Thomson said. “Just the high-velocity repertoire, the ability to throw strikes and the way he can throw his breaking ball, the effectiveness of it, he thought it could be a key building block for us for depth. And thank God he had the idea because it worked out really well.”

The end of Mercado's first start was particularly impressive. He retired the last seven batters he faced and needed just 21 pitches total to get through the fourth and fifth innings before turning the ball over to the bullpen, which retired nine in a row before Jose Ruiz allowed all three batters he faced in the ninth inning to score.

It helped that the Phillies backed him up early. Garrett Stubbs, who prides himself on his game planning and the strategic aspects of catching, steered Mercado through the start and helped him with a two-run double down the third base line in the second inning.

Trea Turner hit a solo home run to left-center field in the third inning, then hit a 94 mph fastball from Hayden Wesneski up the middle in the fifth inning and hit it 439 feet out of the ballpark onto Waveland Ave for a two-run shot. Two innings later, Turner trailed 1-2 before hitting an RBI single to the opposite field with two outs.

Turner had the game-winning two-run single on Sunday and will be even more important than usual over the next one to 10 days as the Phillies await the return of Bryce Harper (hamstring strain), Kyle Schwarber (groin strain) and JT Realmuto (recovery from right meniscus surgery). All three injured Phillies are making progress. They all jogged on the field Tuesday, Realmuto took catching and batting practice on the field for the first time since his June 12 surgery, and Harper and Schwarber batted inside the cage.

Harper and Schwarber could be back as early as July 9. Realmuto's return may have to wait until after the All-Star break, although Thomson has not yet confirmed.

“We'll see,” the Phillies manager said Tuesday afternoon. “He's healing quickly.”

The Phillies are 11-9 without Realmuto and are 3-1 since Harper and Schwarber were out. They have received great help from Turner and Nick Castellanos, as well as Stubbs.

For Stubbs, his offense is the icing on the cake, but since Realmuto's surgery, he has held his own at bat, posting a .275 batting average with one hit in 10 of the 11 games he has played.

The 2024 Phillies’ “next man up” mentality was more than just lip service.

They are 56-29, a season-high 27 games over .500. The Braves lost to the Giants, putting the Phillies back nine games ahead in the division. The teams meet this weekend for the first time since the first three games of the year.

But first, they'll look to get at least two of three wins against a Cubs team that has lost six of seven series and 16 of its last 24 games. Zack Wheeler takes the field Wednesday night and Cristopher Sanchez will start the afternoon of July 4.