By Bob Brookover
Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
WASHINGTON — This tortuous 11-game road trip that figured to officially end the long-running folly that the Phillies still had a chance to make the postseason did exactly that Tuesday afternoon at Nationals Park.
With the wimpiest of whimpers, the Phillies bowed out of the wild-card race, losing the first game of a cruel day-night doubleheader by the score of 4-1 to the Washington Nationals, who after their 6-5 victory in the second game and a Cubs loss to the Pirates clinched a spot in the postseason for the fifth time in eight years.
As so often has been the case during his two-year tenure as Phillies manager, Gabe Kapler’s words following the loss served mostly as an irritant to many of the team’s fans.
Bryce Harper was not in the lineup for the second game at Nationals Park after Philadelphia was eliminated from the wild-card race in a 4-1 afternoon loss.
“We’re going to have plenty of time to reflect on the fact that we didn’t get to the postseason, which was the goal and the only thing we thought about all season long,” Kapler said after his team lost for the fifth time in six games. “And we will get to that moment of reflection. We have felt some sting already. I think we’ll continue to feel some sting. We have a game to get ready for right now and that’s important, but certainly, there will be time to reflect. For me, we’ll try to win every baseball game. There’s a lot of pride at stake.”
Honestly, there did not appear to be much pride in the way the Phillies played the first game of their doubleheader Tuesday. Or Monday night, when they lost 7-2 in the nation’s capital. Or Sunday when they were clobbered 10-1 by the Indians in Cleveland. Add it all up and the Phillies were outscored 21-4 in their final three must-win games of the season.
The Nationals sent Joe Ross and his unsightly 6.17 ERA to the mound Tuesday afternoon for the first time since Sept. 2 and Washington manager Dave Martinez knew he would have to rely heavily on a bullpen that entered the game with the highest ERA in baseball.
The Phillies had Ross on the ropes in the first inning as four of the first five batters reached base. All they could muster was a single run and then the bats, as they did so often this season, went silent once again as six pitchers combined to retire the last 18 Phillies batters in order.
“Certainly we’re not scoring runs,” Kapler said. “In order to win baseball games you have to have some offense, and we always talk about playing for the big inning, and we’re going to need to be able to do that more successfully. We just haven’t been able to scratch runs across. That’s what hurt us.”
Kapler was not ready to talk about the elephant in the room even though the elephant will remain in the room until managing partner John Middleton makes a declaration about his manager’s status beyond Sunday’s season finale against the Marlins.
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“We have games to play,” Kapler said. “There’s going to be plenty of opportunity to reflect. I love this organization. I love this team specifically. I love working for this front office. I love working for this ownership group. And look, I’m going to manage this club as long as I can because I think I give us a great chance to win and I think because I care deeply about the success of this franchise.”
That’s all nice, and we also know Kapler has the full support of general manager Matt Klentak. All we need to know, however, is this: How does Middleton feel about what he has seen this season?
In truth, this road trip was a microcosm of the Phillies’ season. It started with high hopes, not to mention a three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves. But nothing was ever sustainable for the 2019 Phillies, who are likely to replace the 1990 Phillies as the most recent team in franchise history not to win five games in a row during the season.
Now, Kapler’s Phillies need to go 3-3 in their final six games just to have a winning record for the first time since 2011, and if you had told the manager that would be the case when the team left spring training, he’d have had to admit his job would be in jeopardy.
At least Kapler is no longer pretending that he is managing Game 7 of the World Series when in reality he was running a team inhaling the exhaust fumes from all the clubs in front of them for the last month. He left both Harper and the badly slumping Rhys Hoskins out of the lineup in the second game against Washington’s Max Scherzer.
Hoskins, hitless in his last 25 at-bats after going 0-for-3 in Tuesday’s opening game of the doubleheader, admitted to being frustrated by this season’s sad end and his personal struggle.
“I think I said this before: The toughest part is just not contributing to the team,” Hoskins said after his season average dipped to .229. “I’ll have to make changes. I always will. This offseason I think I will have to reflect on what’s gone well and what’s gone bad. I think it’s kind of a tale of two halves and I really just have to learn from it and try to move forward.”
Hoskins does believe that the Phillies’ offensive core that failed to produce as expected this season still has good days ahead.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “We have a ton of talent and that showed throughout the year. But like I said, it just didn’t sync up and it is frustrating. I don’t think there is any reason not to be excited going forward, assuming we have the same players we do right now.”
As Gabe Kapler’s team got ready to play Game 2 on Tuesday night after it was eliminated, there was nothing to feel other than disappointment about the 2019 season.