It took Gabe Kapler a couple of tries, but he finally delivered his message to Cesar Hernandez.
Hernandez was out of the starting lineup for Monday night’s series opener against the Pirates. The benching, Kapler said during his pre-game meeting with reporters, was “in response” to Hernandez’ failure to run out a ball in the sixth inning of Sunday’s 3-2 loss in Miami.
It sounded simple enough except for one important detail: Hernandez did not see things that way.
When asked about the benching by reporters, Hernandez said Kapler had informed him that he was just getting a day off. Hernandez went on to say that what happened in Miami on Sunday had been dealt with after that game and his absence from the starting lineup Monday night was unrelated.
Hernandez’ take on the matter eventually got back to Kapler and that resulted in the manager seeking out the player and telling him directly that the benching was indeed a response to what happened Sunday.
"It's not a punishment," Kapler said. "It's a response."
Kapler, according to several sources, used Hernandez’ misstep as impetus to call a five-minute team meeting before Monday night’s game. The subject: hustle.
“I was taking a look at the calendar and recognized how important every game is for the rest of the season and the little things really matter right now,” Kapler said. “And I felt that it was appropriate to show that's really meaningful to all of us as a group in the clubhouse. Cesar could end up playing in today's game and could play a meaningful role. But I felt the timing was right to let our club know how important every inch is right now.”
The Phillies entered Monday night 1½ games back in the NL wild-card race with 33 to play. The Phils are a flawed team but so is every other club in the wild-card hunt. An extra base, a hit cutoff man, a detail here or there, can help a team win a game and one win could make a huge difference in the race.
Hernandez did not run out of the box on a ball off the right-field wall in the sixth inning of a scoreless game Sunday. He should have had a double on the play but could not advance past first base. Not getting into scoring position in a tight game was an egregious mistake on Hernandez’ part. He was fortunate that Rhys Hoskins got him off the hook with a two-run homer. The homer gave the Phils a 2-0 lead, which they lost when the Marlins rallied for three runs in the bottom of the sixth en route to the win.
Kapler said he decided to bench Hernandez after digesting the play overnight. He said he received no directive from his bosses to take action.
After Sunday’s game, Kapler was asked why he did not remove Hernandez on the spot. In the wake of defeat, he did not answer the question directly. He was asked the same question Monday and acknowledged that he might have acted differently if his bench was configured differently. It’s no secret that the Phillies have a weak bench and that removing Hernandez would have weakened the team.
“I think my first responsibility is protecting the Philadelphia Phillies and whenever you take a player out of the game in the middle of a game, particularly early in the game, you lose leverage on the bench and I think there are multiple ways to send messages to players and the clubhouse and it can come during the game, it can come post-game, it can come down the road and it can come in conversations,” Kapler said. “I didn’t feel like sacrificing the possibility that we’d win yesterday’s baseball game was the right thing for the Philadelphia Phillies in the middle of a playoff race.”
Kapler said Hernandez’ benching would not last more than one game. He emphasized that the team needed Hernandez to step up in the leadoff spot down the stretch and said it was possible he could come off the bench Monday night and contribute.
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