Can’t catch, can’t move runners, can’t throw enough strikes — just another bad loss for Phillies

Can’t catch, can’t move runners, can’t throw enough strikes — just another bad loss for Phillies

Before we get into the major reasons — and they were all pretty much self-inflicted — why the Phillies suffered a 5-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night, did you happen to notice the final showdown of the game?

High-octane theater.

Hard-throwing Pirates lefty closer Felipe Vazquez, affectionately known as Nightmare, against hard-swinging Phillies slugger Bryce Harper.

The showdown, with the game on the line, went seven pitches. Vazquez threw five fastballs. Four of them lit up the radar gun at 100 mph or above and the runt of the litter was 99 mph.

Harper swung through the first two fastballs then took a 100-mph heater and an 88-mph slider, both balls, to even the count. He then fouled off a pair of 101-mph fastballs before Vazquez turned sinister and uncorked an 85-mph curveball. Geared for triple-digit heat, Harper had no chance. He swung big — why not, because the Phillies were down to their last strike and a home run would have tied the game — but came up with nothing but a bat full of air molecules.

As the Pirates converged on the mound to congratulate Vazquez, Harper stood frozen at home plate for a few seconds as if he were pondering the bullet train that had just run him over.

The Phillies did not lose because Harper couldn’t handle the Nightmarish offerings of Vazquez.

They lost because they couldn’t do diddly with leadoff doubles in the seventh and eighth innings in a tie game.

They lost because Hector Neris walked two batters with one out in the top of the ninth.

They lost because Rhys Hoskins, already mired in a painful offensive slump, made a horrifying fielding error that allowed the Pirates to score the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth.

The half-inning was basically over. The Phillies were going to survive Neris’ two walks. But Hoskins dropped a throw from shortstop Jean Segura that would have completed a double play and been the third out.

“Just missed it,” said Hoskins, who always stands up and takes it like a man, good or bad. “Clanked it. It hit the palm of my glove.”

Hoskins hit the ball well Tuesday night, founds some barrels, as the cool kids say, stroked a hard-hit single to center field. But he’s still hitting just .166 since the All-Star break.

Hoskins’ killer drop in the field suggested that his confidence might be wounded. He looks like a guy who needs a day off, a guy who should stay away from the ballpark until about an hour before Wednesday night’s game, get a stretch and be ready to pinch-hit late in the game. Thursday is an off day in the schedule. That would give Hoskins basically two days to clear his mind before coming back for the first day of the rest of his season Friday.

Kapler seemed open to the idea of giving Hoskins a mental-health day.

“It’s something I’ll talk to Rhys about,” he said.

Hoskins is not in favor of a day off.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “We’re in a playoff push right now.”

Hoskins’ desire to play is honorable. Getting right back on the horse Wednesday night might be good for him. But a head-clearing day might be better. It will be interesting to see which way Kapler goes on this.

While Hoskins’ error ultimately killed the Phillies, there were other self-inflicted wounds. The offense could not capitalize on leadoff doubles in the seventh and eighth innings. J.T. Realmuto died on third in the seventh and Cesar Hernandez never advanced from second in the eighth. Both missed chances came with the score tied.

Hernandez’ double to lead off the bottom of the eighth created a situation where it was imperative the Phillies move him to third base, either with a ground ball to the right side or a bunt. Really, the situation screamed for a bunt, but Kapler let lefty-hitting Brad Miller takes his rips against lefty Francisco Liriano. Miller popped out to shortstop, Adam Haseley bounced back to the mound, and Nightmare came out of the bullpen to strike out pinch-hitter Scott Kingery.

Not being able to move Hernandez to third, where he could have scored to go-ahead run on anything from a bloop hit to a fly ball to a wild pitch, was an egregious fundamental breakdown.

Why not have Miller bunt?

“I'm open to it all the time,” Kapler said after the game. “It's something that we talked about in that situation.

“It's kind of a tough spot to put Haseley in against Liriano, coming up right behind him. He's as tough on lefties as anybody. So what you do is you give Miller a whack at it. You give Haseley a whack at it. And you give Kingery a whack at it. Try to drive him in.”

Hernandez looked as lonely stranded at second base as Harper did after flailing at Vazquez’s game-ending curveball in the ninth.

The Phillies have had a lot of bad losses this season and this was yet another. They fell two games back in the NL wild-card race.

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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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