ATLANTA — If the NL East is eventually decided by a game or two in the Braves' favor, Friday night, June 14, will stick out like a hanging splitter.
The Phillies, previously 36-2 when leading after the eighth inning, imploded in the ninth and lost a heartbreaker, 9-8 to the Braves to fall to 2½ games back in the NL East (see observations). It was the eighth win in a row for a Braves team that looks more dangerous by the day.
The ninth inning was like a game unto itself. Hector Neris, who entered a perfect 14 for 14 in save chances this season, looked to have things locked down on three different occasions but just could not throw that one final strike past rookie Austin Riley or veteran Brian McCann.
When Neris came all the way back from a 3-0 count to strike out Freddie Freeman earlier in the inning, it appeared he was on track to notch his 15th straight save. When Jay Bruce made a game-saving play by bare-handing a bouncing ball in the outfield that he ran past, it looked like fortune was on the Phillies' side.
Both Riley and McCann made well-placed contact to left-center off Neris to key the win. Both were down to their final strike.
Neris is an accountable guy. He has been in this position before, experiencing success and failure. When he throws a flat fastball or leaves a split too high in the zone, he admits it. He did not feel like he was terrible on this night.
"He got soft contact on a pitch I threw for a strikeout," Neris said of the McCann at-bat, which cut the Phillies' lead to one and put runners on second and third with two outs. "He got terrible contact on that single. I can't control that. It was down, it just struck the bat. Looking at the pitch, lucky for him. But tomorrow, you know, I got it tomorrow, for sure."
The expected batting average on McCann's walk-off hit was just .190. You have to wonder whether it was a ball that an outfielder with range like Andrew McCutchen would have reached.
When you lose like this, all there is to do is look forward to tomorrow. A loss like this is too hard to swallow if you think too long about it or replay every moment.
The Phillies were in control for two and a half hours. They got three long home runs from Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery and led 7-2 entering the bottom of the seventh. They got a mostly solid start from Nick Pivetta, who had allowed just a pair of runs on solo homers through six.
But the bullpen, which is ravaged by injuries and not good enough to win a division as currently constructed, gave it all back.
"A crushing loss, no way around it," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We had a two-run lead in the ninth inning with our best reliever on the mound. Neris has been tremendous for us all year long. Outstanding for a full calendar year. Can't wait to get him back out on the mound in that same kind of situation. We have the highest level of trust with him in that situation. We felt really good in the dugout about it. It's just a devastating loss. We'll come back tomorrow and be ready to fight again."
Fans raced to social media to play Monday morning quarterback, a common occurrence when a big lead is lost. So many act like every decision the manager made was so plainly stupid and should have been changed. Looking at the choices Kapler made late in this game, no glaring mistake caused this loss. The Braves are just really good. They don't swing and miss much and they don't quit.
Did Kapler leave Pivetta in too long? Who's to say? You saw what the bullpen ended up doing. And in the long run, showing confidence in Pivetta with two outs and a man on second in the seventh inning against a hitter he'd retired all three times earlier in the night could be beneficial for him. Extending him to 116 pitches could be a confidence-builder and Pivetta acknowledged as much after the game.
Why use Jose Alvarez in the eighth? You tell me who you're going to in that spot, with lefties Nick Markakis and McCann due up and switch-hitting Ozzie Albies to follow.
Why not intentionally walk McCann with two outs and two on and pitch to Albies instead? Because Albies is a skilled hitter who is 14 for 33 (.424) over his last nine games and could have just as easily beaten Neris as McCann did. In fact, Albies may have been more of a threat, considering he's fast enough to beat out an infield hit, and another walk would have forced in the tying run.
"It was discussed when McCann came up to the plate," Kapler said. "We felt like we had the right matchup there. Albies is the kind of guy that if he puts the ball in play he can beat out a single. There are so many things that can happen. The split can go by the catcher. We just thought the right thing there was let him go after McCann. We didn't think that ball was blistered by any stretch. We thought he made a good pitch.
"At the end of the day, there's no discounting that that was very difficult to watch."
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