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.”
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.