Nights like this are why it’s difficult to believe these Phillies can live to play October baseball.
They are a bad defensive team. And they don’t hit enough to play over their defensive shortcomings.
The inability to make a couple of routine plays cost the Phils dearly in a 5-3 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night (see first take). The crowd on the first night of an important homestand was just 21,261. The Phils have lost seven of their last nine ballgames and 13 of their last 20. They lost a half-game in the standings and trail first-place Atlanta by 3½ games in the NL East with 31 to play.
The Phillies’ goal, as general manager Matt Klentak alluded to before the game, is to stay close the rest of the way and take their chances in seven head-to-head matchups with the Braves over the final 11 games of the season.
But if the Phillies don’t clean up a lot of things and start winning consistently real soon, those seven games with Atlanta over the final 11 days of the season aren’t going to mean much.
“I actually think we’re in a perfectly good spot right now,” Klentak said before the game. “We are three games out of the division. We are two games out of the wild card and we are a team that has lost 90-plus games three years in a row and hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2011. There are 32 games left to play, seven of which are against the Braves. We are in a good spot. We get hot and play well in September, we can do some damage and play some October baseball. That is the goal for these players, for this coaching staff and for this organization.”
The Phillies entered Monday night’s game ranked 27th in the majors with a .238 batting average. They ranked 29th in the majors in hits (1,045) and were able to add just six to that total. Phillie killer Stephen Strasburg (11-2 career against the Phils) pitched six innings of five-hit, two-run ball for the win.
The Phillies are averaging just 3.75 runs over the last 20 games.
But offense wasn’t the killer Monday night. Defense was. It was a 2-2 game in the top of the fourth inning when starting pitcher Zach Eflin and leftfielder Rhys Hoskins both made defensive miscues that led to runs. The Nats took a 4-2 lead on the mistakes and never looked back.
“The story of the game tonight is very simple and straightforward,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “We gave a club with a very good, deep lineup additional outs. We can't afford to do that. We did it with a pretty good start from Strasburg on the other side. Against a team like this, you have to get the outs when you have a chance to get the outs.”
Defense has been a season-long issue for the Phils. They entered the game with 99 errors, second most in the majors, and they ranked last in the majors with minus-101 defensive runs saved, according to Fangraphs data.
Defensive shifts also hurt the Phils in this one. Eflin gave up a run on three straight two-out singles in the first inning. But the first hit went right through the area of second base that was vacated by the shift. In other words, without the shift it would have been an out. In the fourth, Eflin gave up another shift-aided hit, a leadoff single to Juan Soto. Soto eventually scored on Eflin’s throwing error to the plate.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to field my position and being able to throw to bases whenever I want,” Eflin said. “That one really hit home for me. I'm not happy about it. I'm actually pretty damn disappointed in myself.”
Seven of the eight hits that Eflin allowed were singles. One of them was a misplay by Hoskins in left and several others were ground balls that found holes and two were shift-aided.
“It's frustrating at times but at the end of the day I typically look and see where everybody is playing before each batter,” Eflin said. “You can say the same thing on the reverse side — what if they would hit it into the shift every time tonight? So you give and take. It goes both ways. The past two outings they've found the hole just about every single time, so at times it can frustrate you but the only thing you can do is keep your head up and focus on the next guy. It's just baseball.”
Trailing 5-2 in the sixth inning, the Phils appeared to be putting something together when Wilson Ramos and Asdrubal Cabrera both singled with no outs. Cabrera’s single went to right field and Ramos tried to go first to third on the play. But Ramos was thrown out after letting up to protect his sore hamstrings. Ramos, in the lineup because the Phillies are desperate for a bat, heard a few boos for what was perceived as lack of hustle.
Kapler defended Ramos.
“He's playing through a lot,” Kapler said. “I spoke to him after the game. I just shared with him that, 'Just stop at second. Go base to base.' In hindsight, he probably would have done that. Maybe in his mind he thought he was going to make it to third base easily. That wasn't the case. But I think he deserves to be recognized for being especially tough and posting for us tonight.”