Making sense of Phillies' demoralizing meltdown against Braves

Making sense of Phillies' demoralizing meltdown against Braves

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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MLB trade deadline tracker: Latest news and rumors across baseball

MLB trade deadline tracker: Latest news and rumors across baseball

Track all the latest MLB trade deadline news and rumors here through July 31.

Phils show interest in Stroman (July 19)

Unsurprisingly, many front offices will have an eye tonight on Blue Jays right-hander Marcus Stroman when he faces the lowly Tigers tonight, MLB Network’s Jon Morosi points out, adding the Phillies are one of the interested parties.

The Phillies hold some level of interest in every available starting pitcher, ranging from the top and most expensive tier to the marginal upgrades.

Stroman is one of the most attractive pitchers on the market. He’s 28, he was an All-Star, and he’s bounced back strong this season. In 19 starts, he has a 3.25 ERA and is allowing a career-low rate of hits. His strikeout rate is similar to Jake Arrieta’s or Zach Eflin’s. Stroman relies on ground balls and has been effective this season getting out of jams. He’s fun to watch when he’s doing it, the most demonstrative starting pitcher in the majors.

Will Cards move Martinez? (July 16)

The Cardinals are 47-45, two games out of first place and tied with the Phillies for the second wild-card spot. Yet they could look to trade Carlos Martinez this month, according to Ken Rosenthal.

Martinez is acting as St. Louis' closer with Jordan Hicks out for the season. Martinez has pitched well in relief, posting a 2.18 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning in 18 appearances.

But he's also making $11.5 million, more than a team in the Cardinals' position would ideally like to pay a pitcher to get three or four outs. 

Martinez was a very effective starting pitcher from 2015-18, going 50-33 with a 3.22 ERA and making a pair of All-Star teams. A year's worth of shoulder pain forced the Cardinals to move him from the rotation to the bullpen.

Martinez is an interesting trade candidate because there figure to be at least a few teams who check in on him as a starting pitcher.

Race for Ray (July 15)

The Phillies are again showing interest in Robbie Ray, according to Jon Morosi. We have mentioned Ray frequently here as a Phillies trade target dating back to last summer.

Ray would help any contender. He’s a 27-year-old lefty with an extremely high strikeout rate. He experiences bouts of wildness and does lead the National League with 56 walks, but he has also settled in to a mid-3.00s ERA the last three seasons.

The left-handedness and legit swing-and-miss stuff make Ray the type of pitcher the Phillies do not have.

Ray turns 28 on Oct. 1. Based on his age and remaining contract — 2020 is his final arbitration year before he becomes a free agent — he would be a great fit for the Phillies, even if they do continue to fall out of the playoff race. Ray would help them now and next season and would be a prime extension candidate if he pitches well.

The competition for his services via trade will be intense. The Astros (more on them below) are also in on Ray, and plenty of other clubs have expressed interest in the past. The Phillies would have to trade a player or two they don’t want to trade to acquire him.

Speedsters available (July 15)

The Royals have made lightning-fast outfielders Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore available. Neither is much of a fit for the Phillies, who already have Roman Quinn in that role.

Hamilton and Gore could both help a contender in need of a late-inning defensive replacement/pinch-runner. They are both impactful defenders and baserunners who can't hit.

As for Whit Merrifield, it seems unlikely Kansas City would move him despite being 30 games under .500. Merrifield is such a good, multi-dimensional player that the Royals deserve a huge score for him. At 30 years old, he is enjoying by far his best season, hitting .309/.361/.500 with 26 doubles, eight triples, 11 homers, 45 RBI and 14 stolen bases. Merrifield's .861 OPS is 55 points higher than his previous career-high.

Merrifield's dynamic offense and positional versatility make him a fit anywhere. The Cubs would make a ton of sense. 

Astros after a starter? (July 15)

The Astros have gotten huge production from their top three starters, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley. But the back of the rotation remains a question mark. Collin McHugh is pitching in a mop-up role, Brad Peacock is dealing with a sore shoulder, Framber Valdez has been lit up three starts in a row, and Corbin Martin underwent Tommy John surgery the first week of July.

The Astros are still maybe the deepest team in baseball. Anything less than a World Series win would represent disappointment in 2019. Madison Bumgarner would make a whole lot of sense for Houston, which is still rich in prospects after all of their graduations to the majors.

Trade season begins

A pair of solid but unspectacular starting pitchers were moved this past weekend to kick off trade deadline activity.

Remember, these next two weeks figure to be even more frenzied than usual in July because there is now a hard trade deadline of July 31. No more August trades, except those involving a swap of minor-leaguers.

The Orioles sent Andrew Cashner to the Red Sox for a pair of 17-year-old position player prospects who had been playing for Boston's Dominican Summer League team. 

The soon-to-be 33-year-old Cashner went 9-3 with a 3.83 ERA in 17 starts with the Orioles. Baltimore went 11-6 in his starts and 17-59 in all other games.

The Red Sox needed another starting pitcher with the Nate Eovaldi experiment going sideways. Eovaldi has missed much of the season and will shift to the bullpen upon his return later this month. 

As of Monday afternoon, the Red Sox were 2½ games out of the second AL wild-card spot.

The Royals, meanwhile, traded Homer Bailey to the A's for a fringy Double A infielder. Bailey has been just OK this season, with a 4.80 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. 

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Phillies reach deal with free-agent starter Drew Smyly, who could help ... a little bit

Phillies reach deal with free-agent starter Drew Smyly, who could help ... a little bit

The Phillies have reached a deal with free-agent starting pitcher Drew Smyly, NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury has confirmed. 

Smyly, 30, became a free agent Thursday when he opted out of his minor-league contract with the Brewers. 

While Smyly should help, he likely won’t be a savior. After not pitching in the majors in 2017 or 2018 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, the lefty struggled with Texas earlier this season before he was released in June. In 51 1/3 innings this season, Smyly had an 8.42 ERA, 1.909 WHIP and a 50.6 hard-contact rate. 

There was a time when Smyly would have been a much bigger get. From 2012 to 2016, with the Tigers and Rays, he went 31-27 with a 3.74 ERA in 156 games (85 starts). 

Here’s what Salisbury said yesterday about the Phillies’ desperation for starting pitching: 

It is well known that the Phillies are in the market for starting pitching. They have spoken to the Texas Rangers about Mike Minor, the Detroit Tigers about Matthew Boyd and the San Francisco Giants about Madison Bumgarner. They have also investigated the possibility of trading for Zack Greinke, Arizona’s high-priced right-hander.

In addition to inquiring about and gauging what it would take to get a top starter — the price is high and the Phils don't want to give up the multiples of top prospects that other clubs are asking for — the Phils have also considered marginal upgrades like Andrew Cashner, who was traded from Baltimore to Boston, and Homer Bailey, who went from Kansas City to Oakland.

Smyly appears to be one of those marginal upgrades. But it won't hurt to have him. 

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