Phillies offense hits rock bottom, Gabe Kapler says hitting coach is connecting with team

Phillies offense hits rock bottom, Gabe Kapler says hitting coach is connecting with team

SAN FRANCISCO — John Middleton must have wanted to throw a brick through his television screen watching this one.

Think about it. The Phillies owner spent over $400 million and gave up a top pitching prospect to add talent over the winter. The idea was for the Phillies to make a big surge in the standings and go out and get that one finishing piece at the trade deadline. You know, someone like Madison Bumgarner.

But by the time the deadline came around, the underperforming Phillies had so many holes that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense to cripple the farm system to add one pitcher when they really needed three of them. And besides, Bumgarner stayed put as the San Francisco Giants made a July charge into playoff contention.

So there they were Thursday night, the underachieving Phillies squaring off against Bumgarner in the first game of an important four-game series. The Phillies needed a win to stop a blood letting that started with consecutive losses in Arizona the previous two nights. What they got was another in a series of embarrassing defeats. The Phils were held to one hit — one stinking hit — and had just three base runners in a hang-your-head, 5-0 loss to the Giants (see observations).

The loss was the Phillies’ third in a row and sixth in the last nine games. They had entered the day tied for the second NL wild-card spot, but are now off the pace by a half-game. At 59-56, they have the same record as the New York Mets, who once appeared to be dead and buried in the standings but have rallied into contention with 13 wins in the last 14 games. The Phils, 26-33 since ending the month of May up by three games in the NL East, are going in the opposite direction and could be alone in fourth place in the division by the end of play Friday night.

How do you stop this spiral?

“By believing in our players, but keeping the mood light but focused, by never panicking and by trusting that the talent is in this room — and we believe it is,” manager Gabe Kapler said after his team’s latest defeat. “These guys know how good they are and we know that their true talent is going to rise to the top.”

The only thing that rose Thursday night was Mr. Middleton's ire.

The Giants came into the game having just been swept in three games by the Washington Nationals. Bumgarner needed to be a stopper and he was. He featured mostly fastballs and cutters. The fastball topped out at just 92 mph but that and good location on the pitch was enough to hold the Phils to one hit over seven innings. He walked one and struck out three. Cesar Heranandez had the Phillies’ only hit, a pinch-hit single with one out in the sixth inning.

“Bumgarner had a fastball, it wasn’t a high velocity fastball, but it certainly was heavy and he was able to put the ball where he wanted to put it in keeping our hitters off balance,” Kapler said. “On the flip side, we didn’t make him work hard enough. It’s as simple as that. We have to make good pitchers work hard and fight for every inch and we weren’t able to run his pitch count up at all and he stayed efficient and attacked the strike zone and we weren’t able to make the adjustment.”

Bumgarner got 21 called strikes.

“He was locating,” Kapler said. “Our guys were prepared to attack the fastball and the cutter and Bumgarner was putting it where he wanted to put it.

“At the same time, we have to find ways to scratch and claw to reach base and we weren’t able to do that. It’s not acceptable.”

The Phils have had huge problems hitting with runners in scoring position the last two weeks. They’ve scored one run the last two games and that came on a ninth-inning solo homer by Bryce Harper when the club was already down 6-0 to Arizona on Wednesday night.

The offense has been inconsistent all season, but its recent struggles are reason to wonder if hitting coach John Mallee is connecting with the hitters and if his message is getting through.

Kapler was asked if it was.

“Yes,” he said, offering nothing else on the topic.

Offense wasn’t the only thing that went wrong for the Phillies. The usually dependable Aaron Nola had a difficult start. He gave up three runs in the third inning and there was no coming back from that, not with this offense.

“He had a hard time commanding the fastball in the third inning, a hard time putting hitters away,” Kapler said. “It wasn’t his best outing.”

He wasn’t the Lone Ranger in that regard.

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Didi Gregorius impacts Phillies in more ways than meet the eye

Didi Gregorius impacts Phillies in more ways than meet the eye

The Phillies will host the New York Yankees in a doubleheader today. Zack Wheeler, the Phils' big offseason free-agent acquisition, will start the first game and Aaron Nola will get the ball in the second game.

Dating back to August, the Phillies are winless in Nola's last eight starts. The trend needs to stop today.

Wheeler, so far, has been everything the Phillies could have asked for when they signed him for five years and $118 million. But, of course, he's only made one start — seven innings, one run in the 1-3 Phillies' only win of the season. Many more efforts like that will be needed from Wheeler over the life of his contract.

But this isn't about Nola, who needs to pitch well over these next two months if the Phillies are going to make the 16-team postseason field in this shortened, 60-game season.

And it isn't about Wheeler, the so far, so good right-hander who also needs to continue his good work if the Phils are to have a chance.

This is about the Phils' other free-agent acquisition this winter.

This is about Didi Gregorius.

Now, obviously the sample size is ridiculously small because, well, you know all about the Miami Marlins and how they forced the Phillies into an unwelcome hiatus after just one weekend of play — but through the first four games, hasn't Gregorius been fun to watch?

He's made all the plays, smoothly, some even with a flare, at shortstop.

He's hit in every game.

He's shown pop with two homers. (And the way he turns on anything middle-in, he'll hit a lot more at Citizens Bank Park.)

And, he's played with a smile under the mask he wears to protect himself and others in this time of COVID-19. Gregorius is committed to wearing the mask because he has an underlying health condition.

Having watched Gregorius up close since the start of spring training back in February, we have been captured by his smile, his energy, his effervescence and love of playing the game. These can be infectious qualities of the most beneficial kind on any team and they have shown on the diamond in Gregorius' next-door neighbor, Jean Segura. 

Over the winter, there were questions about how Segura would deal with coming off of shortstop to accommodate Gregorius. Would he feel slighted, pushed aside? Would he pout? These were legitimate concerns because Segura has always been a little high maintenance.

Well, Segura moved over to third base with nary a protest. He put his head down, started working, and has taken to the new position. Having been a shortstop, Segura has the ability to succeed anywhere in the infield if he puts his mind to it. He's the one who has made the transition. But we believe that Gregorius' encouragement and positivity has played a role in Segura's acceptance of the challenge. Gregorius has bonded with Segura, convinced him of his importance and even gotten him to smile a little bit more. All of this might end up making Segura a better player. It has already helped the team solve the matter of how to get Scott Kingery to his best position, second base.

Over the winter, when the Phillies signed Gregorius, we asked a scout about him. We heard all the expected stuff about Gregorius' play on the field, the pop, the throwing arm that was getting better after surgery. But we also heard something that surprised us.

"He was the leader of that Yankees team," the scout said. "Great makeup."

So far in Philadelphia, we're seeing that. We're seeing that with the connection he has made with teammates, particularly his next-door neighbor, Segura.

But these Phils will need more than leadership and strong teammate behavior from Gregorius if they are going to make the postseason. Intangibles can only take you so far.

So what will the Phils need from Gregorius on the field? That's easy. Sound defense, left-side pop, big hits with men on base, get on base, hit for average. Basically, what every other team needs from its top players if it is going to be successful. Gregorius is just two seasons removed from a career-best .829 OPS with the Yankees. An elbow injury derailed that season. He's healthy now. Maybe a season like that — over a shorter track — is in the cards.

If it is, it won't just help the Phillies, it'll help Gregorius, as well. He signed a one-year, $14 million deal with the Phillies in the offseason and he'll be right back out there on the market this winter.

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Injuries and schedule changes have already created a chaotic NL East picture

Injuries and schedule changes have already created a chaotic NL East picture

A little less than two weeks into the season, injuries and schedule changes have already created a chaotic picture in the NL East.

Two teams have played 11 games. One team has played seven. One has played four and another has played three.

The only NL East teams who haven't missed any early-season games are the Braves (7-4) and Mets (4-7). The Braves are 2½ games ahead of the Phillies and one game ahead in the loss column. 

The Phillies are in a better early-season position than the Mets just because the Mets have already accrued seven losses. The only two teams in the majors with more are the Pirates and Royals.

Though, which team would you rather be: The team that already has seven losses or the team that has five additional games to make up? It's an advantage for the Mets and Braves that they have less hectic remaining schedules than the rest of the division. The Phillies have 56 games left to play in just 54 days. The Mets and Braves have 49 games left in those same 54 days. 

The Phillies' first series with the Braves is this weekend at home after they finish with the Yankees. Early as it is, that series carries major significance. The Phillies will play 40% of their games against the Braves in this one weekend wraparound series from Friday through Monday. Going 1-3 or 0-4 against the Braves would put the Phillies in a deep hole from which their jam-packed schedule might not allow them to dig out. 

As the Phillies and Marlins have sat, the other three teams in the division have dealt with injuries. The Braves on Monday night lost Mike Soroka, their No. 1 starter. Just hours before his 23rd birthday, Soroka tore his right Achilles and is done for 2020. He is one of their most important players. Soroka was an All-Star last season who finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting to Pete Alonso and sixth in NL Cy Young voting. In 37 career starts, he's 15-6 with a 2.86 ERA. With Soroka out, the Braves have Max Fried, Sean Newcomb, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Wright and a to-be-determined fifth starter. Not exactly a starting staff you look at and expect to ride to a division crown.

The Mets scratched three infielders on Monday — Jeff McNeil with back tightness, Robinson Cano with a groin strain and Amed Rosario with a quad strain. Yoenis Cespedes opted out of the 2020 MLB season over the weekend.

The Nationals are still without Stephen Strasburg, who has yet to make his season debut. Strasburg was scratched from his first start because of a nerve impingement in his right wrist. He's back to throwing off a mound but is still unlikely to pitch for the Nats until at least the weekend. At minimum, Strasburg will end up missing two turns through the rotation, which in a 60-game season represents one-sixth of the starts.

Reliever Will Harris, whom the Nats signed away from the Astros after beating them in the 2019 World Series, is on the IL with a groin strain. Two other Nats, Howie Kendrick and Eric Thames, are dealing with back injuries.

Is it a coincidence to see these sorts of injuries early in the everyday grind of Major League Baseball after so much time off and an unconventional ramp-up period? No, probably not.

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