One out from victory, the Phillies suffered another painful loss Saturday night and with it watched their claim to a projected playoff spot slip away.
Throughout their hideous six-week slide in the standings, the Phils could point to the fact that if the season were to end at that moment, they’d be in the playoffs, thanks to the wild card.
They awakened Sunday morning unable to say that anymore. Their awful 4-3 loss to the Washington Nationals left them on the outside of the wild-card chase (see observations).
In the final days of May, the Phils led the NL East by 3½ games over Atlanta and 10 over Washington. After 23 losses in the last 37 games, they are in third place, in danger of falling 8½ games out of first place and becoming irrelevant by the time the Eagles open training camp.
“In order for us to do what we want to do — get to the postseason — we just need to play better baseball,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “That’s the bottom line. We’re not thinking about the standings right now. We understand what they are. We’re not blind to the fact that we’ve fallen behind in the National League East. And we’re not blind to the fact that it’s going to take a push to make the playoffs. We’re fully aware of that. But we're not in a panic mode by any stretch.
“We’re strong. We understand that this is not the brand of baseball we can play to reach the postseason and go deep into the postseason, but we're tough. We know that we're going to come out tomorrow and fight.”
The Phils have come back from the All-Star break and lost two straight to the Nationals (they were shut out Friday night) and now they will look to avoid a sweep Sunday by sending Jake Arrieta to the mound two days after he was officially diagnosed with a bone spur in his pitching elbow (see story).
That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
But, then again, neither does the Phils’ play over the last six weeks.
Saturday night’s loss was symbolic of the Phillies’ collapse. They jumped out to a 3-0 lead on Nationals’ lefty Patrick Corbin after four innings and did not score the rest of the game. They made several great defensive plays behind Aaron Nola early in the game, but were hurt by a Maikel Franco error in the eighth. They ultimately lost it when Hector Neris gave up a two-out single to Anthony Rendon in the ninth, followed by a two-run homer to Juan Soto. Soto hit a first-pitch splitter. Everyone looks for that pitch from Neris and it is often good. But when it hangs, like this one — watch out.
“In that moment, I have to throw my best pitch,” Neris said. “He made good contact.”
The Phillies tried to rally against closer Sean Doolittle in the ninth, but pinch-hitter Andrew Knapp flied out to center field with the tying run on second to end the game.
In addition to Franco’s error in the eighth, the Phillies were also hurt by Cesar Hernandez’s getting caught trying to steal third one out before Franco launched a solo homer in the second inning. Kapler said Hernandez had the green light but “did not get a good jump.”
Corbin struck out 10 in six innings.
Nola pitched six innings of one-run ball and left with a 3-1 lead. He has an ERA of 0.76 in his last five starts. He has allowed just 19 hits and three earned runs in 35 2/3 innings over that span. He has walked 12 and struck out 43.
“Nola come out and gave us a great start,” Kapler said. “You fully expect to win that game when you score runs off Corbin early. We felt confident that would be the outcome of this game. You live and die with your horses and we did.”
When will the losing stop?
Will the Phils have the upper hand for a playoff spot again this season?
Things are pretty bleak with one more to play against the Nationals followed by four against the mighty Dodgers.
Kapler is maintaining a stiff upper lip.
“We’re a better team than we’ve shown in the last calendar month or more,” he said. “I expect us to be better down the stretch. It’s July 13. There’s a lot of baseball left to be played.”
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