NEW YORK – If only for a minute, Gabe Kapler allowed himself to look beyond that night’s game and think about the big picture engulfing his inconsistent team.
“I’d really like to be in the postseason,” Kapler said Friday afternoon at Citi Field. “And I think about that more than I think about anything else.”
Ah, yes, the playoffs, the gathering of the best teams in baseball and an event that the Phillies have not participated in the last seven years.
And it could soon be an eight-season drought.
Despite all the offseason love the Phillies received after acquiring Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, among others, these Phillies have not matched the sum of their parts. They are perhaps baseball’s most maddening team, a team that can showcase its talent in brief spurts and give reason for optimism, but too often done is done in by an inconsistent offense and poor pitching.
Before Saturday’s 5-0 win over the Mets, the Phillies had just a 1.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs.
“We know that we’ve been written off and we don’t care. We need to keep fighting and clawing for every last inch,” Kapler said. “We know that we’re being counted out and we understand that’s the sentiment. We don’t believe it.”
Even with Bryce Harper, offense hasn’t clicked
Perhaps the hype surrounding the Phillies proved greater than the actual talent, but more was expected from the Phillies than what they’ve shown thus far.
There are expectations when a team acquires a potential Hall-of-Famer in Harper, the sport’s best catcher in Realmuto, steady regulars in Jean Segura and Andrew McCutchen, and one of the most durable relievers in David Robertson.
The Phillies, who had been building toward this moment, finally made their move, bringing in respected veterans to complement young pieces.
The season started with a sweep of the Braves, but that opening series did not serve as an omen for the rest of the season. The Phillies last owned a share of first place on June 11, and the Braves have outplayed them by 18 games since that opening sweep en route to what will be a second straight division crown.
“Everyone in here would agree that this season has been up and down for us, for sure, some really good times, some frustrating times as well. I think that’s pretty normal for a baseball season,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins told Yahoo Sports Friday afternoon before the start of this critical series in New York. “Things may have gotten blown out of proportion because expectations were really high with some of the offseason moves that we made, and rightfully so, those guys are outstanding players and have been really good for us lately and the whole season.”
The Phillies have far too often left you scratching your head, wondering why they aren’t better, and thus are three games back in the wild-card hunt.
The offense that most expected to be so good just hasn’t delivered, ranking 16th in runs scored entering Saturday.
Most of the starters are having good years, but, collectively, they are a mediocre unit, ranking in the middle tier in most categories. Harper owns an .869 OPS, Hoskins’ is at .850, and Realmuto has slugged a career-best 23 homers.
Two facets that have hurt the Phillies is their lack of production from the leadoff spot, and with runners in scoring position.
McCutchen suffered a torn ACL in early June, and the Phillies have shuffled through various leadoff hitters with little success in his absence. They owned the 27th best OPS from their leadoff hitters entering Saturday.
With men in scoring position, they ranked 20th in average.
Saturday night, the Phillies actually delivered some clutch hits in a four-run fourth inning to open up a 5-0 lead against Marcus Stroman.
“It’s hard to put a finger on,” veteran Jay Bruce, a midseason acquisition, said of the team’s offensive woes. “It’s interesting because I think when the year is over you’re going to look at guys’ numbers individually, and they are going to be about where they are or should be. …What you’re going to look back to is how we lost games we should have won based on doing the small things we expect to do and maybe didn’t do as much as we consistently expected to.”
An entire bullpen on the injured list
That the Phillies have not excelled on the pitching front is not all that shocking, but no one could have accounted for all the injuries they have suffered, particularly among their relievers.
The relievers on the injured list would form quite a capable unit: Robertson, Adam Morgan, Tommy Hunter, Adam Morgan, Pat Neshek, Edubray Ramos, Seranthony Dominguez, Juan Nicasio and Victor Arano
Robertson will finish this year and potentially his Phillies tenure with just 6.2 innings after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Those injuries have left the Phillies turning to castoffs such as Mike Morin, Blake Parker and Nick Vincent being asked to get meaningful outs. Each had previously been let go by another team.
Vincent allowed a walk-off homer Thursday to the Reds, and then walked in the game-ending run in Friday’s 5-4 loss to the Mets. Morin had put on the run that scored, and also suffered the loss in an Aug. 30 loss to the Mets.
The starting pitching has been defined by the inability of any of the young pitchers –aside from Aaron Nola — to take a step forward this year, particularly Nick Pivetta.
The Phillies also received 24 starts to the tune of a 4.64 ERA from pricy No. 2 starter Jake Arrieta before he also underwent surgery.
The starters’ and relievers’ ERAs are both roughly in the middle of the pack.
“It’s not something you can plan for obviously,” Hoskins said of the injuries. “There are a lot of adjustments that have to be made on the fly, some guys being pushed into roles they’re not used to or haven’t been in in the past. ...It’s frustrating for sure but it’s part of the game. Every team goes through it. Unfortunately, it seemed all of ours happened at once, but every team goes through that. That’s not an excuse.”
Still have a chance to sneak in
Whether it’s fair or not, it seems these Phillies will be judged by whether they make the playoffs. Inside that clubhouse, the players will tell you how talented a roster it is, and how they are capable of going on a run at any time.
The one saving grace for the Phillies is for all of their flaws, they still are in this NL wild-card race since they’re competing against teams that are likewise flawed.
The Mets’ bullpen is too flammable. The Diamondbacks are probably overachieving. The Brewers lack pitching. The Cubs are hot and cold.
Maybe, just maybe, if this Phillies team can find a way to put it all together and play up to their potential, they will have a shot to get to September.
They have a grueling schedule coming up, but still have five games left with the Nationals and an end-of-season treat with the Marlins at home.
“We’re just not doing what it takes to win games. We’re playing OK, we’re staying in the game, but we’re just not quite finishing the games,” Realmuto said after Friday’s loss. “We’re right there in games, but something always seems to happen, we don’t get it done pitching, we don’t get it done hitting. We’re just not getting it done.”
With 21 games left, it’s now or never for a team that seemed ready to meet expectations after three games, but has underwhelmed since.
“We know what we’re capable of and know if we play the game that we’ve played in flashes throughout the season, we know the ability we have,” Hoskins said Friday. “If we do that and take care of business, we know we can beat anybody.”
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