ATLANTA — Taking two of three from the Atlanta Braves on the road usually leaves a team with a spring in its step as it heads to the airport to get out of town.
But there was a palpable disappointment in the visiting clubhouse at SunTrust Park late Thursday afternoon. Time is running out for these Phillies. Winning series is no longer good enough. They need sweeps and they failed to get one with ace Aaron Nola on the mound Thursday. A damaging 5-4 loss to the Braves left the Phillies four games back in the NL wild-card race with just 11 games remaining.
Bryce Harper said all the right things after the loss. He mentioned how the Phillies scratched and clawed during the three games in Atlanta, mentioned how they need to do that again over the weekend in Cleveland, mentioned how they still have a chance.
But a few lockers down, J.T. Realmuto’s silence was telling. He politely declined to speak to reporters.
Manager Gabe Kapler does not have the luxury of declining interviews. He found himself under the microscope for a fifth-inning decision in which he let Nola pitch to Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman in a tie game with two men on base and first base open. There was one out. A walk would have set up a potential double play.
Prior to the at-bat, Freeman was 0 for 6 with five walks in the series. This situation seemed to call for another walk, intentional or unintentional, but Nola went right at Freeman with a first-pitch fastball and the National League’s co-leader in RBIs drove in his 118th and 119th runs of the season with a hit to right to give the Braves a lead that they never relinquished.
Earlier in the game, Nola gave up a two-run homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. He also allowed a solo homer to rookie Austin Riley in the sixth as the Braves built a 5-3 lead.
The Phils pecked away at the lead with a run in the eighth, but the comeback fell short.
Nola is winless in his last six starts and has been roughed up in three of his last four. He was accountable for his struggles and said he’s simply given up too many runs. He disputed the notion that Freeman’s hit — and the decision to pitch to him — was the turning point in the game.
“It didn’t really cross my mind, honestly,” the right-hander said of pitching around Freeman and going after Adam Duvall. “I feel like I’ve had pretty good success against Freddie. Fastball kind of caught a little too much of the plate.”
Nola is a competitive beast on the mound and those types of pitchers usually don’t like to walk batters. So, did Kapler consider taking the decision out of Nola’s hands and ordering an intentional walk of Freeman?
“Given how early it was in the game and given the fact that he's 9 for 41 off Aaron and Aaron has had a lot of success against Freeman in the past, you trust your horse there,” Kapler said. “You trust your ace. And I trust him immensely to make a big pitch in that situation.
“I think Aaron wants to go after every hitter. It's something we talk about pretty frequently. He feels like he can beat any hitter. We feel like he can beat any hitter. He had a history of beating Freddie Freeman. At that point in the game, it felt like the right thing for Aaron and the club to let him go after Freddie.”
Nola has struggled in three of four starts this month. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a loss against Boston last weekend but has been tagged for 20 hits and 14 runs over 15 innings in his other three starts this month. Two of those starts have been against the Braves.
“I haven’t been the best this month, obviously,” Nola said. “I’ve given up a good bit of runs and home runs. I haven’t really shut the other team down in a few games. Had a couple bad games where I’ve given up four or five runs. It’s hard to win those games for sure when you’re giving up those kind of runs.”
Harper did not realize that the Phils were winless in Nola’s last six starts.
“I’m kind of shocked, actually,” he said. “I had no idea. Definitely, that’s tough. He goes out there and puts his heart out there every single day for us. He’s our guy.”
The unfortunate irony in all this is that the Phils arranged their rotation so that Nola can start every fifth day in a playoff chase. As Harper said, he’s their guy, and they wanted him on the mound as much as possible. The strategy has not paid off, however.
“Yeah, I'd really like to be able to score some more runs for Aaron,” Kapler said. “Maybe get him an early lead and put a little confidence in him. I can understand. It's certainly disappointing.”
Nola said he’s not fatigued.
“I feel fine,” he said. “My body is healthy.”
He lines up to pitch one of the games in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Washington.
What will the Phillies’ playoff chances look like then?
Will they even still be in the race?
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