'Excruciating loss' to Nationals makes you wonder if Phillies are running out of gas

'Excruciating loss' to Nationals makes you wonder if Phillies are running out of gas


WASHINGTON — If you’ve watched the Phillies stagger and stumble over the last couple of weeks you probably had a bad feeling when they left the bases loaded in a one-run game in the top of the ninth inning Wednesday night.

You probably looked at the wasted opportunity and thought, “Hmmm. That could come back to haunt them.”

It did.

In a most painful way.

The Phillies suffered one of their most difficult losses of the season when rookie reliever Seranthony Dominguez gave up a two-run home run to Ryan Zimmerman with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. The 8-7 loss was the Phillies’ fourth in a row and dropped them three games behind first-place Atlanta in the NL East (see first take). The Phils are 68-58 overall and 5-10 in their last 15.

There are 36 games remaining and rookie manager Gabe Kapler is unbowed.

“This is a good test for us,” Kapler said moments after Zimmerman’s 11th career walk-off homer. “It’s a big challenge. Big challenge to have a tough week like we've had and then to have an excruciating loss like this one. Our guys aren't going to hang our heads. We're going to come back swinging tomorrow. We're going to be prepared. Looking forward to having (Aaron) Nola on the mound. We have a lot of trust and confidence he can help us weather the storm.”

The Phillies entered the month of August in first place in the NL East and have already blown past last year’s win total of 66.

Is it possible that they are running out of gas? After all, they have blown 4-1 leads on consecutive nights and seen two of their best relievers, Victor Arano and Dominguez, give up leads. On top of it all, the defense continues to be bad and it was again Wednesday night.

“I'm not concerned about our club,” Kapler said. “I know that we have issues. I know that we are imperfect. But I don't worry about a four-game stretch. I don't worry about a 10-game stretch. I and we pay attention to the ways we can move the ball forward, the ways that we can take small steps forward, the ways we can control and impact the game. It doesn't make sense for us to harp on some of the things that have happened over the last couple of days. What makes sense for us is to keep our chins up, put our chests out and get ready for tomorrow against the Nationals.”

De facto team captain Rhys Hoskins took a stance similar to his manager’s: There is still gas in this team’s tank.

“If you can’t get up for a pennant race at the end of August and September, you probably should play something else," Hoskins said. "You probably should play a different sport. Check yourself at the door. I don’t think being tired is anybody’s thought in here. As soon as we get there with what’s at stake and what’s going to be at stake in the next five weeks, I think everybody will be just fine as far as being tired.

“The ball hasn’t bounced our way very often the last week. Obviously, tonight is rough. You never want to lose a game at all, let alone lose like that. But I think the sense in this clubhouse is that there is no panic. We’re young. A lot of us haven’t been here before, but the veteran guys in this clubhouse, the guys with experience, the guys that have been through this before, have just stressed to stay the course. There’s no need to change much. We got to where we were by trusting our work, trusting our preparation. So I think as long as there’s no panic — I don’t think anybody’s hitting the panic button — I think we’re going to be OK.”

The Phillies have a tough assignment as they try to avoid a sweep on Thursday. Yes, they have their ace, Nola, on the mound, but so do the Nationals. They will have Max Scherzer, winner of the last two NL Cy Young Awards, on the mound.

The Phils have wasted plenty of good starting pitching lately. That wasn’t the case in this one. Zach Eflin struggled and gave up an early 4-1 lead built on the backs of big hits by Maikel Franco and Justin Bour. The Phillies, however, regained the lead — twice — and got some good relief work from Hector Neris and Tommy Hunter in taking a 7-5 lead into the eighth inning.

Pat Neshek gave up a triple and sacrifice fly in the eighth inning as the Nats made it a one-run game.

The Phils had a golden chance to add some insurance in the top of the ninth, but Asdrubal Cabrera popped out and Bour struck out with the bases loaded. Earlier in the game, Bour had an RBI double and a solo homer.

Kapler seldom admits to feeling any negative vibes. Nonetheless, he was was asked if leaving the bases full in the ninth gave him a bad feeling.

“No. No,” he said. “We felt like we were positioned to win that baseball game.”

Dominguez got the first two outs in the ninth then could not put Juan Soto away and the Washington rookie turned around a 2-2, 98-mph fastball and stroked it to right for a double.

Four pitches later, Zimmerman belted a 2-1 fastball over the wall in right and one of the Phillies’ worst losses of the season was in the books.

“It’s hard because things didn’t go the way I wanted them to go,” Dominguez said. “But I’m not going to put my head down. I’m going to keep working hard. Tomorrow's a new day.”

And another tough test for a reeling team.

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J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

J.T. Realmuto will fight for future generations in salary arbitration case against Phillies

More than once last summer, J.T. Realmuto expressed his affection for Philadelphia and said he’d one day be up for signing a long-term contract extension with the Phillies.

The specter of his upcoming salary arbitration hearing hasn’t changed his outlook.

“Not at all,” he said before the 116th annual Philadelphia Sports Writers Association banquet Monday night. “Anybody who knows about the arbitration process knows it’s business. It’s not necessarily me against the Phillies right now. There’s definitely not going to be any hard feelings there. So I feel like we’re at the same place we were two or three months ago as far as with the contract extension.”

Before the two sides go to work on a long-term contract extension, Realmuto is likely to play the 2020 season on a one-year contract. Barring an unlikely settlement, Realmuto will have his 2020 salary decided by an arbitration panel next month. He is seeking $12.4 million. The Phillies’ arbitration offer is $10 million. The arbitration panel will hear arguments from both sides then pick one number or the other.

Realmuto knows the game. He went to arbitration with the Miami Marlins two years ago and lost.

“I have a good understanding of the process,” he said. “I know it’s not the Phillies trying to slight me. It’s more the system. There are no hard feelings there.”

Realmuto, who turns 29 in March, is coming off a season in which he solidified himself as baseball’s best catcher while making $5.9 million. He was an All-Star. He was the catcher on the inaugural All-MLB team and he won both the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in the National League. He led all big-league catchers in hits, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits while swatting a career-high 25 homers. He threw out 37 runners trying to steal, the most in the majors.

Realmuto’s 2019 season put him in a good position to win his arbitration case.

But he made it clear that this is about more than just himself.

"It’s not me against the Phillies,” he said. “It’s the system that we’re trying to fight right now.  I’m trying to go out and set a precedent for future catchers in the game and I feel like I had a season worthy of doing that so I’m going to fight for that.

"This is not because the Phillies didn’t give us a chance to come to an agreement. We’re fighting for a cause, fighting for the rest of the catchers. Historically, catchers have not been treated well in the arbitration process and we feel like this is an opportunity to advance that for the catchers. Just being able to fight for those guys is something I take pride in. I believe in fighting for future generations and I’m excited to do it."

Once Realmuto’s 2020 salary is established in mid-February, the Phillies are expected to initiate talks on an extension that would begin at the start of the 2021 season. Those talks should commence during spring training. A contract extension is expected to cover up to five seasons with an average annual value of over $20 million.

Realmuto, who was honored as the PSWA’s Athlete of the Year for 2019, was joined by new Phillies manager Joe Girardi at the banquet.

“I’m really excited to play for him,” Realmuto said. “I feel like he’s got a lot of feel. He knows exactly what he wants to do as a manager and has a lot of confidence and he’ll be able to instill that confidence in us.”

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Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez 'disappointed' by Astros’ scandal, ready to 'click' in Phillies’ rotation

Vince Velasquez broke into the majors with the Houston Astros in 2015. His manager was A.J. Hinch. Jeff Luhnow was the general manager.

You know where this is going.

“I never saw anything,” Velasquez said Monday. “A lot of people have asked me, but I wasn’t there when it happened.

“It was shocking to hear about. And a little bit disappointing.”

The Astros were found to have used an illicit sign stealing scheme during their 2017 World Series championship season. Major League Baseball last week suspended Hinch and Luhnow for the 2020 season and Houston ownership followed up by firing both men. The explosive issue also cost Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran their jobs as managers of the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, respectively. Cora was the Astros’ bench coach, and a mastermind of the scheme, in 2017, and Beltran was a player on the team.

Velasquez pitched in just 19 games for the Astros in 2015. He was traded to the Phillies in December of that year.

Pitchers and catchers have always been cognizant of changing their signs and varying their sequences in running through signs, especially when there is a runner on second base, to combat sign stealing. Velasquez predicted that pitchers and catchers will be even more diligent in light of the Astros' scandal.

“Now, we have to be more observant of what we’re doing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be part of the discussion [in spring training.] You have to learn to protect yourself.”

Velasquez is spending the week in Philadelphia helping the team with some promotional work. (He even plans to throw a couple of bullpen sessions in the cages at Citizens Bank Park.) On Monday, Velasquez and teammate Roman Quinn joined former Phillies Milt Thompson and Mickey Morandini at a youth instructional clinic at the Ryan Howard Training Center in South Philadelphia. Forty-five young players affiliated with the Phillies/MLB Urban Youth Academy and RBI program showed up a cold January day to get a head start on the season and some tips from the Phillies players past and present.

Quinn missed significant time last season with a torn groin muscle, the latest in a series of injuries that has robbed the exciting outfielder of playing time in his career. He has made changes to his offseason conditioning program and believes he can stay healthy in 2020 and make a run at the Phillies’ starting centerfield job. As it stands right now, he will battle Adam Haseley for the job in camp.

“I trust my abilities and I know if I’m healthy then it’s hard to keep me out of the lineup,” Quinn said.

Like Quinn, Velasquez will be in a spring-training battle.

The top four spots in the Phillies’ rotation are set with Aaron Nola, Zach Wheeler, Zach Eflin and Jake Arrieta. Velasquez will compete with Nick Pivetta for the fifth spot in the rotation. The loser of the competition will not necessarily be out of a job as the Phillies need bullpen help and one of the two could end up there.

Velasquez knows where he wants to be.

“I can play any role, but I want to start,” the 27-year-old right-hander said. “I want to be in the rotation. I want to be in that playoff run and I want to be that guy for that game.

“I know I have a job to earn. That’s my main focus. Battling.”

Velasquez, as Phillies fans know by now, is blessed with a tremendous arm. However, he has struggled to put his talents together and arrive at that place known as consistency. He runs high pitch counts and fails to get through the middle of games. He averaged just 4 2/3 innings in his 23 starts last season.

Velasquez knows it’s time for him to pitch deeper into games and he says, “I want that bad.” He has already established a telephone/text/video relationship with new pitching coach Bryan Price in hopes of picking up some keys to doing that.

“We’re in communication,” Velasquez said. “I’ve spoken to him a number of times and sent him videos of some of my bullpens.”

Velasquez avoided salary arbitration and will make $3.6 million this season. As his price tag goes up, so do expectations and the impatience of team officials. He might not be around at this time next season if he doesn’t produce in 2020.

“I’m very optimistic this is the year it clicks,” Velasquez said. “I know I’ve had a lot of ups and downs, but I feel like I’m starting to figure a lot of things out. A lot of people tend to figure things out after two or three years in the major leagues and I think this is that time for me to put all the pieces together.

“My time is due. It’s really come down to that point where I need to plug in all the pieces.”

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