Gabe Kapler recalls the challenge of his final days in Philadelphia

Gabe Kapler recalls the challenge of his final days in Philadelphia

SAN DIEGO — The beginning wasn’t easy for Gabe Kapler in Philadelphia and neither was the end. He was booed before managing his first game in Citizens Bank Park in 2018. Eighteen months later, he twisted in the wind for 10 days as Phillies ownership pondered whether to bring him back for the 2020 season or let him go.

Eventually, Kapler was fired but he wasn’t out of work long as the San Francisco Giants hired him to manage their club in November.

At the winter meetings Tuesday, Kapler recalled waiting for John Middleton’s verdict over those uncomfortable final 10 days in Philadelphia.

“Those ten days were challenging because I definitely wanted the opportunity to continue to manage the Phillies,” Kapler said. “I wanted to see the work that we put in, and I wanted to see it through the finish line. In my mind, that finish line was still in the future and in the distance, and I think there's going to be a lot of great things accomplished in Philadelphia next year.

“But it was difficult, and sometimes there's a real silver lining to those situations. I think the Philadelphia Phillies got a great manager in Joe Girardi in place, and I think I have an opportunity to manage a club that I'm incredibly excited about, and the people that I'm working with, I'm really excited about as well. So I think, interestingly, even though it was challenging, those 10 days, it worked out pretty well for the Phillies, and I think it worked out really well for the Giants as well.”

Kapler was asked what he said to Middleton upon learning that he would not return to manage the Phillies.

“The last words were 'thank you for the opportunity,' ” he said.

Kapler was asked how he might have been able to save his job in Philadelphia.

“Probably win more baseball games,” he said.

Kapler’s record in Philadelphia was 161-163. He learned a lot in those two seasons.

“I think the thing that stands out to me is I'm excited about getting every possible strategic advantage as a manager and as part of a coaching staff,” Kapler said. “I think that one of the things that I learned is that sometimes those small strategic advantages come at the expense of some confidence from a player.

“So I think I did a better job in 2019 than I did in 2018 of blending those two things, blending the small strategic advantages with the confidence level of the players, and I think I'm going to do a better job having learned some of those lessons in '18, in 2020, without overcorrecting. I think that's an important part as well. Bringing it back to the middle is important, too, after an overcorrection is made.

“So, specifically, it's just striking the right balance between getting small strategic advantages and confidence levels of players.”

Kapler will be back in Philadelphia with the Giants August 7-10 — unless he sneaks into town earlier for one of his favorite steaks at Suraya.

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More on the Phillies

With uncertainty at the top of the rotation, can Phillies' other starters step up?

With uncertainty at the top of the rotation, can Phillies' other starters step up?

There was a lot of talk over the winter and into the spring about the Phillies having a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of their starting rotation.

Rightfully so. 

The Phillies handed free agent Zack Wheeler a five-year, $118 million contract in December to slide into the second spot in the rotation behind established ace Aaron Nola. With Nola and Wheeler at the top of the rotation, the rest of the arms could simply fall into place behind them. The Phillies had every right to think their pitching staff would be vastly improved in 2020, significantly better than the unit that struggled throughout the 2019 season.

Times have changed.

As the Phillies ramp up "summer camp" at Citizens Bank Park to prepare for an abbreviated 60-game season, there is suddenly plenty of uncertainty pertaining to their top two starting pitchers. 

Nola missed the first three days of camp before reporting on Monday. He was kept away from the team due to COVID-19 protocols — Nola didn't test positive for the virus but he was in contact with someone who did (see story). It's certainly good news that Nola surfaced at camp and threw a bullpen session. But 18 days out from opening day, it's a stretch to think the Phillies will have the best version of Nola out of the gates this season.

Then there's Wheeler, who admitted on Sunday that he has reservations about playing this season with his wife set to deliver the couple's first child at the end of July. Wheeler mentioned he could reconsider his decision whether to play after the baby arrives. 

The combination of Nola's late arrival and Wheeler's uncertain status has a trickle-down effect on the rest of the rotation. Will the other starters step up? Let's examine that question on a case-by-case basis. 

Jake Arrieta

The 34-year old Arrieta enters the final year of a three-year, $75 million contract he signed prior to the 2018 season. The Phillies have not gotten their money's worth out of that deal — Arrieta is 18-19 with a 4.26 ERA in 55 starts during two injury-plagued seasons in Philadelphia. He pitched through a knee injury two years ago, then had his 2019 season cut short due to an elbow injury. 

In one of our "Phillies Return to Play'"shows last week, Jim Salisbury identified Arrieta as perhaps the biggest X-factor in this 2020 Phillies season. 

Can he resemble the Arrieta that won a Cy Young in 2015 and helped the Cubs to a World Series title in 2016? The Phillies sure hope so, particularly with the question marks surrounding the two guys ahead of him in the rotation.

Zach Eflin

Eflin is poised to have a breakout 2020 season, even if he only makes a maximum of 12 starts. At 26 years old and entering his fifth MLB season, Eflin has shown the potential to be a very good big-league starter. He just needs to prove he can perform at a high level consistently.

He had a 4.13 ERA in 32 games (28 starts) last season. There was plenty of good (a pair of complete game victories) and bad (a late-season demotion to the bullpen). 

Eflin should benefit greatly from the presence of new pitching coach Bryan Price. Eflin is at his best when he's throwing his sinker down in the zone, not trying to get hitters out with high fastballs as former pitching coach Chris Young instructed him to do. 

Look for Eflin to pitch to his strengths this season. It could translate into a career year, albeit an abbreviated one. 

Vince Velasquez/Nick Pivetta

It's easy to lump Velasquez and Pivetta together due to their many similarities. Both guys have terrific stuff and have looked dominant at times in their careers. But they both have struggled mightily to find any type of consistency. 

Both Velasquez and Pivetta have been used as relievers. Is that how they will be used this season? Time will tell, but for now they are competing for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. If either of them can finally harness all of their natural talent, it will be a major boost to the Phillies pitching staff.  

Spencer Howard

Initially, the 23-year old Howard was expected to start his 2020 season in the minor leagues. He was also expected to have an innings limit and eventually be shut down late in the season. Due to the events of the last four months, plans have changed. The organization's top pitching prospect will have every opportunity to crack the opening day roster and perhaps the starting rotation. 

Howard threw off the mound at CBP to live hitters on Monday. If he impresses over the next two weeks, don't be surprised to see him play a prominent role right from the outset of the regular season. 

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More on the Phillies

Phillies' Aaron Nola: I did not have the virus

Phillies' Aaron Nola: I did not have the virus

Aaron Nola reported to Phillies camp on Monday, threw in the bullpen, then announced that he did not have COVID-19.

“All my tests have been negative,” the right-hander said.

Nola said his absence from camp — which officially began Friday — was because he came in contact with someone who tested positive.

“I’m glad to clear this up,” Nola said. “I was exposed to another person who tested positive. I had no symptoms. By MLB protocol, I had to stay home for seven days.”

Nola said he “stayed home” in the Philadelphia area. He added that he did not know where the exposure happened. He had previously been in Clearwater and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, his hometown.

Nola would not say if he had been exposed to a teammate or a club official who had tested positive. The Phillies have had several positive tests.

Nola has thrown regularly during the shutdown. He said his arm felt good and that he expects to face hitters in the next few days. That would put him in line to start during the first week of the season, perhaps even the July 24 season opener. The schedule will be announced tonight.

“I’m glad to be back,” he said after his workout Monday. “It felt good to throw off a nice mound.

“Everything felt normal, except we’re wearing masks." 

Manager Joe Girardi said Nola looked good during his bullpen session. Girardi would not put a projected date on Nola's first start, saying he wanted to gauge the pitcher for a few days before he locked anything in.

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