Phillies

Matt Klentak stands by Gabe Kapler, who wants to make things simpler for his hitters

Matt Klentak stands by Gabe Kapler, who wants to make things simpler for his hitters

Not that it's much of a surprise, but Phillies GM Matt Klentak confirmed Monday that Gabe Kapler will be the manager for the rest of the season.

The Phillies are in a downward spiral that has seen them lose seven games in a row and 16 of 22. In less than a month, the Braves have gained 10 full games in the standings. 

But no big shakeup is imminent, at least not at the top of the coaching staff.

"Gabe Kapler is our manager. Our staff is our staff," Klentak said prior to Monday's series opener against the Mets.

"I'm very well aware of all the criticism right now of the manager, the coaching staff, of certain players. I understand why it's happening. When a team goes through a stretch like we've gone through in the last couple of weeks, people are going to ask a lot of questions. 

"My view right now is that the wrong thing to do is to point a finger at any one person and say you are the reason this is happening. I do not believe in that. We've had a tough time hitting the baseball. We've had a tough time keeping the ball in the park on the mound and we've had a really tough time with the injury bug. It's very difficult for me to say that's on any one person.  

"Let's face it: This is the same team that was in first place two weeks ago. This is the same team that looked like a juggernaut for the first two weeks of the year. This is the same team that went toe-to-toe with the best teams in the NL about a month ago. That has not radically changed. Our place in the standings has changed. We have not played good baseball. That is stating the obvious. To lose faith in our players, to lose faith in our staff is the wrong thing to do at this time. We're proud to stick with these guys and rally together."

Hitting coach John Mallee's job has come into question at a high volume over the last two weeks. This is the case any time an offense struggles. We all say hitting coaches in the majors don't really matter ... until a lineup is not hitting, in which case firing the hitting coach becomes some sort of magical solution.

It goes with the gig and every hitting coach knows it.

"I've been a part of organizations that have made in-season staff changes before," Klentak said. "You have to believe that if you're going to do that you have to believe that your alternative is better than your status quo. And I believe in our guys."

Klentak pointed out that it was just three years ago that Mallee oversaw a Cubs juggernaut that won a World Series. Of course, this doesn't mean much. It's not as if Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez and Willson Contreras were twisting in the wind before Mallee arrived or after he left. 

The Phillies' lack of offense, particularly in the power department, has been startling. This team was supposed to hit many more home runs than it has. Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins have combined for 29 home runs in 77 games. That might have been a strong number five years ago but not in 2019, when 18 players already have 20-plus homers and 63 have more than Harper's 13.

The expectation that J.T. Realmuto's power would surge as he transitioned from a bad offense and a big ballpark to a good offense and a small ballpark? Hasn't happened. Realmuto has 10 home runs and 23 extra-base hits total. Through this many games last season, he had 36 extra-base hits. 

And keep in mind, Realmuto is the only Phillie in the Top 10 in home runs at any position. (You can count Jay Bruce if you'd like, but 14 of his 20 home runs were with the Mariners and did nothing for the Phillies.)

Kapler's K.I.S.S. method

So how does this get fixed?

The Phillies have been one of baseball's worst teams against opposing fastballs. They have done damage on mistake pitches less frequently than every team in baseball except the worst offenses like the Tigers, Blue Jays, Orioles, Giants and Marlins. To try to correct this, the Phillies are simplifying the message to their hitters. 

An organization obsessed with data and the relaying of information is telling its hitters to focus on the most basic of offensive tasks.

"One thing that we're implementing now is a very simple approach of staying on the fastball, hitting the fastball," Kapler said. "We know that hanging breaking balls, you don't have to sit on, you don't have to look for them or try to hit them, they sit up there, they spin, you can be on the fastball and blister a breaking ball. 

"This is not rocket science, it's not some revelation someone came up with today to get on the fastball and stay on the fastball. This is something that most teams preach and something we've preached in the past. But it is a really good time to simplify a message for an entire group of hitters that we have historically done damage on that pitch and we will get back on track and begin to do damage on that pitch again."

Will they? Will they do it soon enough for it to actually matter in the NL East playoff picture? We shall see. The Phillies face three hittable pitchers in this series in Steven Matz, Walker Lockett and Jason Vargas. Now would be a good time to start pounding mistakes.

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What’s more unthinkable, pitching to Freddie Freeman or Phillies being winless in Aaron Nola’s last six starts?

What’s more unthinkable, pitching to Freddie Freeman or Phillies being winless in Aaron Nola’s last six starts?

ATLANTA – Taking two of three from the Atlanta Braves on the road usually leaves a team with a spring in its step as it heads to the airport to get out of town.

But there was a palpable disappointment in the visiting clubhouse at SunTrust Park late Thursday afternoon. Time is running out for these Phillies. Winning series is no longer good enough. They need sweeps and they failed to get one with ace Aaron Nola on the mound Thursday. A damaging 5-4 loss to the Braves left the Phillies 3 ½ games back in the NL wild-card race with just 11 games remaining.

Bryce Harper said all the right things after the loss. He mentioned how the Phillies scratched and clawed during the three games in Atlanta, mentioned how they need to do that again over the weekend in Cleveland, mentioned how they still have a chance.

But a few lockers down, J.T. Realmuto’s silence was telling. He politely declined to speak to reporters.

Manager Gabe Kapler does not have the luxury of declining interviews. He found himself under the microscope for a fifth-inning decision in which he let Nola pitch to Atlanta slugger Freddie Freeman in a tie game with two men on base and first base open. There was one out. A walk would have set up a potential double play.

Prior to the at-bat, Freeman was 0 for 6 with five walks in the series. This situation seemed to call for another walk, intentional or unintentional, but Nola went right at Freeman with a first-pitch fastball and the National League’s co-leader in RBIs drove in his 118th and 119th runs of the season with a hit to right to give the Braves a lead that they never relinquished.

Earlier in the game, Nola gave up a two-run homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. He also allowed a solo homer to rookie Austin Riley in the sixth as the Braves built a 5-3 lead.

The Phils pecked away at the lead with a run in the eighth, but the comeback fell short.

Nola is winless in his last six starts and has been roughed up in three of his last four. He was accountable for his struggles and said he’s simply given up too many runs. He disputed the notion that Freeman’s hit — and the decision to pitch to him — was the turning point in the game.

“It didn’t really cross my mind, honestly,” the right-hander said of pitching around Freeman and going after Adam Duvall. “I feel like I’ve had pretty good success against Freddy. Fastball kind of caught a little too much of the plate.”

Nola is a competitive beast on the mound and those types of pitchers usually don’t like to walk batters. So, did Kapler consider taking the decision out of Nola’s hands and ordering an intentional walk of Freeman?

“Given how early it was in the game and given the fact that he's 9 for 41 off Aaron and Aaron has had a lot of success against Freeman in the past, you trust your horse there,” Kapler said. “You trust your ace. And I trust him immensely to make a big pitch in that situation.

“I think Aaron wants to go after every hitter. It's something we talk about pretty frequently. He feels like he can beat any hitter. We feel like he can beat any hitter. He had a history of beating Freddie Freeman. At that point in the game, it felt like the right thing for Aaron and the club to let him go after Freddie.”

Nola has struggled in three of four starts this month. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a loss against Boston last weekend but has been tagged for 20 hits and 14 runs over 15 innings in his other three starts this month. Two of those starts have been against the Braves.

“I haven’t been the best this month, obviously,” Nola said. “I’ve given up a good bit of runs and home runs. I haven’t really shut the other team down in a few games. Had a couple bad games where I’ve given up four or five runs. It’s hard to win those games for sure when you’re giving up those kind of runs.”

Harper did not realize that the Phils were winless in Nola’s last six starts.

“I’m kind of shocked, actually,” he said. “I had no idea. Definitely, that’s tough. He goes out there and puts his heart out there every single day for us. He’s our guy.”

The unfortunate irony in all this is that the Phils arranged their rotation so that Nola can start every fifth day in a playoff chase. As Harper said, he’s their guy, and they wanted him on the mound as much as possible. The strategy has not paid off, however.

“Yeah, I'd really like to be able to score some more runs for Aaron,” Kapler said. “Maybe get him an early lead and put a little confidence in him. I can understand. It's certainly disappointing.”

Nola said he’s not fatigued.

“I feel fine,” he said. “My body is healthy.”

He lines up to pitch one of the games in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Washington.

What will the Phillies’ playoff chances look like then?

Will they even still be in the race?

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Freddie Freeman and the Braves make Phillies and Nola pay in costly loss

Freddie Freeman and the Braves make Phillies and Nola pay in costly loss

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA – The Phillies failed to complete a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves on Thursday afternoon. Aaron Nola was roughed up for the third time in his last four outings and the Phillies suffered a 5-4 loss.

The Phillies are winless in Nola’s last six starts, a stretch coinciding with the team’s decision to pitch him every fifth day regardless of the schedule.

Freddie Freeman had a game-changing two-run single against Nola after the Phils passed on walking him to set up a potential double play in the fifth inning. An inning later, Nola gave up a homer to rookie Austin Riley as the Braves built a 5-3 lead. The Phils pushed home a run in the eighth to make it a one run game, but Freeman, the Braves’ first baseman, made a play on Haseley’s line drive to stop the damage as the Phils left two men on base. 

The loss was a blow to the Phillies’ already faint postseason hopes. They immediately fell 3 ½ games back in the wild-card race with a chance to be four back by the end of the day.

There are just 11 games left.

The Phillies are 78-73. They need four wins to have their first winning season since 2011.

Atlanta’s magic number for winning the NL East is one.

Nola’s day

He was not sharp. He gave up nine hits, including two homers, in just five innings of work. He walked two and struck out four.

Nola has struggled in three of four starts this month. He pitched seven innings of one-run ball in a loss against Boston last weekend, but has been tagged for 20 hits and 14 runs over 15 innings in his other three starts this month. Two of those starts have been against the Braves.

If the Phillies stay on turn in their rotation, Nola would start one of the two games in Tuesday’s doubleheader at Washington.

Defensive issues

On Wednesday, general manager Matt Klentak praised the team’s defensive improvement this season. Then the club went out and made three errors, two by second baseman Cesar Hernandez.

Hernandez did not make an error in this one but he did have a costly misplay that led to a Braves’ run in the fifth inning. Hernandez could not immediately get the handle on a ground ball by Ozzie Albies and that prevented him from getting the lead runner at second and possibly starting a double play. He had to settle for the out at first base.

The misplay put runners at second and third with one out in a tie game and Freeman quickly untied it with a two-run single.

Hernandez has one more year of salary arbitration before free agency. He is making $7.75 million this season and could be in line to make about $10 million in 2020. Scott Kingery is projected to be the full-time second baseman at some point. Will the Phillies deal Hernandez this winter to open the spot for Kingery? It’s complicated. Hernandez could be difficult to move at that salary, especially when teams know he could become a free agent if the Phillies don’t offer him a contract.

This is one of the many questions the Phils must deal with in the offseason.

Freeman makes ‘em pay

After Hernandez’ misplay in the fifth, Nola had to face Freeman with one out and runners on second and third in a tie game. The situation seemed ripe for walking Freeman to set up a double play with Adam Duvall coming to the plate. The Phils had, in fact, walked Freeman five times previously in the series. But Nola pitched to Freeman and the Braves slugger, previously 0 for 6 in the series, lined a two-run single to right field to score two runs as the Braves took a 4-2 lead that they never relinquished. 

Up next 

The Phillies move on to Cleveland for a three-game interleague series. The Indians are right in the thick of the American League wild-card race and need the series as badly as the Phillies do.

Pitching matchups: 

Friday night – LHP Drew Smyly (4-6, 6.22) vs. RHP Shane Bieber (14-7, 3.26) 

Saturday night – LHP Jason Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. RHP Zach Plesac (8-6, 3.64) 

Sunday night – RHP Vince Velasquez (7-7, 4.89) vs. RHP Adam Plutko (7-4, 4.34)

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