With owner watching, gasping Phillies fall to .500 mark for the first time this season

With owner watching, gasping Phillies fall to .500 mark for the first time this season

WASHINGTON – The Phillies’ postseason hopes may have ended on Tuesday, but there is still intrigue in these final days of the season.

The Phillies have not had a winning season since 2011 and their chances of having one now are in serious peril after they staggered to their fifth straight loss on Wednesday night.

One day after sweeping the Phillies in a doubleheader and wrapping up a National League wild-card playoff spot, the Washington Nationals rallied to beat the Phils, 5-2. The loss dropped them to .500 for the first time this season at 79-79.

That’s right, after being above .500 all season — including 11 games over and 3 ½ games up in the NL East entering play on May 30 — the Phillies find themselves at the break-even point with just four games to play.

In other words, they need to win three of their last four games to finish with a winning record. That might seem trivial because you play for championships not simply winning records, but another losing season, in a year that started with so much hope and excitement, could hasten changes in the front office or manager’s chair.

The Phillies have lost seven of their last eight and nine of their last 12. That’s not a good look — especially with owner John Middleton taking a recent up-close look. He has been in attendance with front officials for the first four games of this series in Washington.

The Phillies have one more game to play in this series against the Nationals. Lefty Jason Vargas will go for his 100th career win against Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg on Thursday. Beating Strasburg will not be easy. The Nats are still playing with motivation as they look to sew up home-field advantage for the wild-card game next week. And Strasburg has more often than not been death on the Phillies. He is 13-2 with a 2.62 ERA in 26 career starts against the Phils. He's 17-6 with a 3.37 ERA this season. Those 17 wins are tied for the most in the NL.

The Phillies got a nice start from lefty Drew Smyly — 6 1/3 innings, two runs, no walks and 10 strikeouts.

The Nats rallied for two in the runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth against the Phillies’ bullpen to take a 5-2 lead. Defense did not help the Phils. Yan Gomes smashed a double by Rhys Hoskins (tough play, but not impossible) to fuel the Nats’ two-run seventh and Cesar Hernandez made a costly error in the two-run eighth.

Despite falling out of the playoff race the day before, manager Gabe Kapler said before the game that it was important to finish strong.

His team is not doing that.

Can it rally over the final four games and get that winning season?

Will it even matter for Kapler’s future?

“Absolutely, there’s a desire to have a winning season,” Kapler said. “It's important to me. It's important to this ball club. We're going to keep doing everything in our power to make that happen by preparing hard, by grinding every day.”

After finishing the series in Washington on Thursday afternoon, the Phillies finish with three games at home against the lowly Miami Marlins. Every team in the NL East has dominated the Marlins – except the Phillies. They are 7-9 against Miami.

Yes, the Phillies are out contention. Yes, they are stumbling to the finish line.

It’s not pretty.

But it’s still important. Evaluations are being made. Who stays? Who goes?

“I really love managing this club,” Kapler said before the game. “I love working for the people that I work for. That includes our general manager, it includes our ownership group, it includes our entire front office. And I'm not just working for them. I'm working for our player-development staff and our amateur scouting department. I work for everybody in this organization. Love that responsibility. I take it very seriously. Every single day I give every ounce of my energy to that responsibility and will continue to do that as long as I have this privilege.

“There's going to be time to reflect on my future when we get to the end of the season. Right now, my job is to continue to stay focused on managing the major-league club and devoting myself to the organization. I'm going to continue to do that through the end.”

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Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Forgotten Phillies opening day starters of the last 30 years

Steve Carlton, Terry Mulholland, Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay. There are certain eras of Phillies baseball over the last 40 years when you knew who was going to have the honor of being named opening day starter before spring training even started. This year, Aaron Nola was poised to take the ball for his third straight opening-day start. 

Since Carlton’s incredible run of starting 14 out of 15 openers, there have been 15 pitchers tabbed to start the season off for the Phillies but not all were household names. Here’s a look back at some of the pitchers you may have forgotten got the nod in Game 1 of 162.

2005-06: Jon Lieber

Lieber had a couple of pretty good seasons with the Cubs early in the 2000s, was an All-Star in ’01 when he won 20 games and started three straight Opening Days for them. But after having Tommy John surgery, he signed with the Yankees, missed all of ’03 and then bounced back with a solid 2004, good enough for the Phillies to sign him.

He won that '05 opener for the Phillies and had a pretty good campaign, winning 17 games and leading the NL in starts. He pitched another two unremarkable years for the Phils, going 12-17 with a 4.87 ERA.

2001/02: Omar Daal/Robert Person

Lumping these two together because it was a transition time for the Phillies. In the midst of their seventh straight sub-.500 finish, the Phillies traded ace Curt Schilling in July of 2000 to Arizona for four players, one of which was Daal. The lefty ended up losing 19 games in 2000, one game short of becoming the first pitcher in 20 years to lose 20. But that was good enough to earn (?) him the opening day start in 2001, the first with Larry Bowa as manager. Daal had a better year, going 13-7, but did have a 4.46 ERA.

Person also had a very solid season, going 15-7 with a 4.19 ERA. That got him the start in the 2002 opener, but he never found the same success on the mound as he did in ’01. At the plate, however, he had one of the more memorable days for a Phillies pitcher this century in a June game vs. Montreal. He hit a grand slam and a 3-run homer, going 3 for 4 with seven RBI.

2000: Andy Ashby

Ashby had come up in the Phillies system in the late '80s and actually made his MLB debut for the club in 1991. He was drafted by the Rockies in the expansion draft and ended up in San Diego, where he flourished. He was a two-time all-star, started a couple of openers and helped lead the Padres to the NL title in 1998.

When the Phillies traded three prospects for Ashby before 2000, they thought it gave them a legit 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation to go along with Schilling (who missed the beginning of 2000 due to injury). However, that didn’t work out. After going 4-7 with a 5.68 ERA, Ashby was traded during the All-Star break to the Braves for Bruce Chen.

1996: Sid Fernandez

Did you even remember Sid Fernandez was a Phillie? From 1994 through 1999, Schilling started five of six opening days for the Phils. When he started ’96 on the DL, in stepped Fernandez for the opening day honor. “El Sid” had some really good seasons with the vaunted Mets staff of the '80s, making a couple of All-Star games and helping them win a World Series.

Almost a decade later, he signed with the Phillies for the second half of the ’95 season and did well, posting a 3.34 ERA and going 6-1. He wasn’t as effective in ’96, which basically ended his career (he pitched one game for Houston the next season).

1990: Bruce Ruffin

Remembered more for his Chris Berman-given nickname, Bruce “Two Minutes For” Ruffin’s career started with a bang. He went 9-4 with a 2.46 ERA for the Phillies in 1986. But it kind of went downhill from there. Over the next five years with the club, he never finished above .500 and had only one year with an ERA below 4.00. But he got the opening day start in 1990 because someone had to. Partly because…

1989: Floyd Youmans

Maybe the original “new guy” that got the nod for the Phillies, Floyd Youmans had a promising start to his career in Montreal. He started the opener in ’87 at the age of 23, but injuries and a suspension derailed his time there. Before the 1989 season, the Phillies got him in a trade for Kevin Gross. Youmans started only 10 games for the Phillies in what was his final MLB season.

1987-1988: Shane Rawley

Rawley actually had a few good years with the Phils. He made the All-Star team in 1986 and won 17 games with a 3.54 ERA. In ’85, he won 13 with a 3.31. So when it came time to replace Carlton for Opening Day, the torch was passed to Rawley.

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What an opening weekend this would have been for Phillies

What an opening weekend this would have been for Phillies

"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone." — A. Bartlett Giamatti

Of all the quotes about baseball I have read, the beginning of Bart Giamatti's essay "The Green Fields of the Mind" is the one that paints a picture (in oil, of course) of my connection to and love of baseball.

In three sentences we are taken from the renewal of spring to lazy summer afternoons and evenings at the ballpark and finally, to the ache of autumn as the game leaves us for the year.

This year, with fairly little warning, the heartbreak came early. Spring fever actually came with a ... real fever.

We had opening weekend on tap. The Phillies visiting the Miami Marlins. We would take the wraps off a revamped Phillies roster and get a feel for our new set of wheels this season.
What do we have? A team to be truly excited about? Not enough horses? Can Bryce Harper pick up where he left off? Will Jake Arrieta and Rhys Hoskins bounce back?

My watch signals game time.

My phone reminds me, too.

Do the watch and the phone know what they're doing to me?

If you've been a baseball fan since you were a kid, on opening weekend there is a sense of "school's out!" even though you've got two months left. What it is, really, is the promise of summer, laid out in 360 feet of basepath and three acres of the lushest Kentucky Bluegrass you've ever smelled.

As with this opening weekend, the weather is unpredictably tantalizing. Thursday gorgeous, Friday the same, Saturday wet, Sunday back in the drink.

All of that would have been OK. The Marlins play in a dome. The games would be played regardless of weather.

Would have been a good weekend to stay inside.

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