Another awful loss means Phillies can no longer say they'd be in playoffs if season ended today

Another awful loss means Phillies can no longer say they'd be in playoffs if season ended today

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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Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Braves' signing of Will Smith has ripple effect on NL East and free agency

Two weeks into free agency, the Braves have been more active than any team. Their biggest move was Thursday's signing of left-hander Will Smith, the top reliever on the market.

Prior to that, Atlanta brought back three of its own would-be-free-agents in right fielder Nick Markakis, catcher Tyler Flowers and reliever Darren O'Day.

The Smith signing is definitely the highest impact move of the bunch and makes the Braves a lot better. His deal is for a reported $40 million over three years. He is coming off his first All-Star appearance and back-to-back stellar years. He was 6-0 with 34 saves and a 2.76 ERA for the Giants in 2019, he struck out 96 in 65⅓ innings and he held lefties to a .157/.167/.229 batting line. Read that again ... 157/.167/.229!

Bryce Harper will face Smith many times over the next three years. The teams meet 19 times per season and you'd figure Smith will face Harper in a high-leverage situation whenever the game is late and close. Harper is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts lifetime against Smith. Smith will also factor into plenty of matchups with Juan Soto.

The Braves tried various closing formulas in 2018. They went through Arodys Vizcaino, A.J. Minter, Luke Jackson, Shane Greene and Melancon. For most of the season, the ninth-inning was a weakness, yet the Braves still won 97 games. 

Melancon will return in 2020 and could still close, but Smith is another very good option if he falters. It would probably make more sense for the Braves to try to use Melancon as the ninth-inning guy to free up Smith for high-leverage spots against lefties in the eighth or even seventh inning.

Why did Smith sign so quickly? For a couple reasons. First, $40 million over three years is a sweet contract for a reliever. He may not have beaten this deal even by waiting. But his representatives also effectively leveraged Thursday's qualifying offer deadline against teams interested in Smith. There was at least a threat that Smith could accept the Giants' one-year, $17.8 million qualifying offer if a better alternative was not presented by Nov. 14. That created more urgency on the Braves' part.

Removing Smith's name from the free-agent relief market further depletes an already light market. The top two potential free-agent relievers were set to be Smith and Aroldis Chapman, but Smith is a Brave in mid-November and Chapman returned to the Yankees on a new deal.

With Smith off the board, the top free-agent reliever might be longtime lefty starter Drew Pomeranz. In 25 appearances with the Brewers after a midseason trade, Pomeranz had a 2.39 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 45 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings. He's generated a ton of buzz this winter and should also find a lucrative multi-year contract.

Chris Martin, Sergio Romo, Will Harris, Daniel Hudson and Dellin Betances are the best free-agent bullpen arms left. There are also trade candidates like Ken Giles, Raisel Iglesias and maybe Ian Kennedy if the Royals eat most of his remaining $22.5 million.

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Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

Why J.T. Realmuto’s contract extension with the Phillies might take some time

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Phillies went into this offseason prioritizing a contract extension for All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Even as the Phils pursue pitching and possibly a third baseman, they are quietly trying to hammer out that extension, according to multiples sources. 

But the extension might not come before the New Year. It might not even come before the opening of spring training.

Don’t panic. Realmuto solidified his status as the top catcher in baseball by winning the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 2019. The Phillies very much want to prevent him from becoming a free agent after next season and Realmuto, for months, has professed his affection for the Phillies and Philadelphia as well as his desire to stick around.

“Everything I’ve experienced in Philadelphia has been awesome so I wouldn’t be opposed to spending the rest of my career there,” he said in July. 

In order to preserve some payroll flexibility for the 2020 season, it is possible that the Phillies could sign Realmuto to a one-year contract this winter — he projects to make about $10.5 million in his final arbitration year — then subsequently finalize a separate multi-year extension that would kick in at the start of the 2021 season. The extension could be finalized and announced later this offseason or even in spring training.

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is projected to get an extension of four or five years with an average annual value of $20 million or more. By starting the extension in 2021, the AAV of Realmuto’s deal would not count toward the 2020 payroll and thus affect luxury-tax calculations. For tax purposes, the Phillies currently have about $116 million committed to nine players for 2020. Even with Realmuto’s 2020 salary still to be determined and raises due to a number of other players, the Phils do not appear to be in jeopardy of reaching the $208 million tax threshold in 2020 and have the room to pursue top free agents. But pushing Realmuto’s extension back to 2021 would allow for even more room under the tax threshold and that could come in handy this winter or even at the July trade deadline.

After the 2020 season, the Phils will gain some payroll flexibility as Jake Arrieta’s $25 million AAV and David Robertson’s $11.5 million AAV come off the books just as Realmuto’s extension would kick in.

The Phillies have never exceeded the tax threshold. Teams exceeding it for the first time pay 20 percent on every dollar they go over. Last month, owner John Middleton offered his thoughts about exceeding the tax threshold.

“I’m not going to go over the luxury tax so we have a better chance to be the second wild-card team,” Middleton said. “That’s not going to happen. I think you go over the luxury tax when you’re fighting for the World Series. If you have to sign Cliff Lee and that puts you over the tax, you do it. If you have to trade for Roy Halladay and sign him to an extension and that puts you over the tax, you do it. But you don’t do it for a little gain.”

Other than expressing a desire to extend the relationship, Phillies general manager Matt Klentak has steadfastly declined comment on the status of talks with Realmuto on a possible extension. Klentak continued that tack at this week’s GM meetings.

“We love J.T.,” Klentak said. “Every week, it seems like he’s winning a new award. What all of that is doing is confirming what a lot of us have felt for a long time. This guy is the real deal. He can do everything. At some point in this offseason, we will likely talk to him about trying to keep him in the fold beyond his control years and hopefully we’ll line up on something.”

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