CHICAGO — The Phillies tried to fight nuclear war with a bayonet on Tuesday night. They got away with it for a while, but in the end suffered one of their most painful and frustrating losses of the season.
If you added the word infuriating to the list, you probably wouldn't be wrong.
With his four best relievers unavailable because of recent workload, manager Gabe Kapler asked the trio of Edgar Garcia, Jose Alvarez and Juan Nicasio to get the final nine outs with a one-run lead on the Chicago Cubs in Wrigley Field.
Garcia and Alvarez got through the seventh and eighth innings before Nicasio imploded against the Cubs’ rugged lineup in the bottom of the ninth. The Cubs pushed across two runs in the frame and walked off with a 3-2 victory to snap the Phillies’ four-game winning streak (see observations).
It was a brutal loss not just because it came so suddenly, but because it seemed as if the Phils were fighting with one hand tied behind their back.
Relievers Pat Neshek, Adam Morgan, Seranthony Dominguez and Hector Neris — all of whom can and have gotten big outs at the end of games —were all unavailable on the same night. That bit of bullpen management left Kapler in the crosshairs of scrutiny, but he did not budge from his belief that giving those four arms a night off was the right thing to do.
For the record, Morgan had pitched three straight days and Neris three of four. Dominguez worked three of the previous five days and threw 32 pitches on Monday night. Neshek had worked two of the previous four days, but had been up in the bullpen four straight.
“We were strict in giving those guys a blow,” Kapler said. “They've all been working really hard, both in the ‘pen getting up, and also getting into games consistently. We definitely believed Nicasio could get the job done. We saw Alvarez get the job done, we saw Garcia get the job done, and we believed Nicasio could, as well. We were asking a lot of him to go through that part of the lineup. It's a really potent portion of the Cubs' lineup.”
Nicasio opened the ninth by walking the dangerous Kris Bryant. He then gave up a double to Anthony Rizzo. After that, it seemed like it was just a matter of time before the Cubs would push across the two runs they needed to win. The first came on a bases-loaded dribbler between the mound and the first-base line, the second on a clean hit by pinch-hitter Javier Baez.
Nicasio, who had been very good lately — he hadn’t allowed an earned run in 10 straight appearances — declined to speak with reporters after the game.
First baseman Rhys Hoskins was asked if it was frustrating to lose a ballgame without your best bullpen weapons available for deployment.
“I don’t know if ‘frustrating’ is the word,” he said. “I think over the course of a long season, sometimes that’s not the hand you’re dealt. We’ve had to use some guys in big situations pretty frequently lately and we’ve gotten wins because of it. I think this was a situation that everybody knew what we had going in.”
Hoskins paused and added: “I think as an offense we hoped to do a little more but (Cubs’ starter Jose) Quintana was good tonight.”
Quintana indeed limited the Phils to two hits over six shutout innings, but the Phils got three hits against the Cubs’ bullpen in the seventh and took a 2-1 lead on a two-out hit by Andrew McCutchen.
Zach Eflin reached 104 pitches in six innings and Kapler had to to rely on a compromised bullpen to try to close it out.
“It's difficult to hold the Cubs down like (Garcia and Alvarez) did,” Kapler said. “Certainly, we felt like we were in a good position to win that game. We knew we were going to go through the teeth of their lineup and that's a tall task for anyone.”
Kapler showed no regret over not having his top relievers available. He remains committed to going for wins when they are in front of him, even if that means not being in the best position to win a night or two later.
“I think I've been pretty consistent with the approach of aggressively going after wins when we can lock them down,” he said. “I think you always want to balance winning tonight's baseball game with winning a series and winning the long game.”
The Phillies, who remain in first place in the NL East, are 1-1 in this four-game series against the NL Central-leading Cubs. The two teams will be right back at it Wednesday night and the Phillies should have a fresh bullpen, though you probably already deduced that.
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