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Phillies' season went from pleasant to disappointing

Dave Uram
September 13, 2018 - 8:37 am
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The Philadelphia Phillies find themselves a mediocre three games over .500 39 days after being 15, with one of the best records in the National League.

Related: Kapler: Not winning NL East will be 'unsatisfying'

“Baseball gods aren’t on our side right now,” ace Aaron Nola said after losing to the Nationals 5-1 to get swept in the three game home series. “I feel like some stuff’s not going our way right now as it was kind of earlier in the year.”

Nola was able to crack a smile while making that remark in the subdued clubhouse of a team that just played a lifeless baseball game, falling 5-1 to the underachieving Nationals.

The Phils are 7 1/2 games out of first place with 17 to go. The 2007 Phillies faced a slightly smaller deficit in their historic catching of the collapsing Mets.

While the mood underneath the stands of Citizens Bank Park appeared to be one of disappointment after dropping a fifth straight contest, about seven hours earlier, the vibe of the almost eliminated Phillies was completely different.

With 18 games left in the regular season, the Phils were facing, at that time, their largest division deficit to the Braves at 6 1/2 games. Yet, if September 12th was the first day you decided to follow the club and you got a sneak peak into their clubhouse, you wouldn’t be able to tell that this team was 11-22 in their last 33 games, now 11-23 in their previous 34. Players were upbeat, chatty and on their phones relaxing before another key showdown with Washington.

“I’m glad to hear that the guys seem pretty loose (in the clubhouse),” an enthusiastic Gabe Kapler said in his office prior to the game. “I think that’s been the character of our club all year long. We know how to have fun. We know how to celebrate. Obviously, when we have a tough loss we all suffer, but then the next day we’re able to turn the page.”

Maybe the calm, cool and collected nature was a result of Nola starting.

“I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s going to pull harder for a starting pitcher than this group,” Kapler said before Nola took the mound. “We care deeply about Nola...We want the best for him.”

The best did not happen. Nola gave up four runs (three in the first inning) and was pulled for pinch hitter Justin Bour in the fifth inning. The Phils might’ve been better off leaving in their ace. The bats weren’t going to get the job done.

Some fans are referencing the Phillies current downward trend to that of 1964, when the team infamously gave up a late season lead in the standings to miss the World Series.

That comparison is a bit extreme, but the Phils recent play can’t be sugarcoated, as the always positive Kapler said after getting swept in a double header to Nationals. They’re not playing well. Execution is brutal.

“It’s not one thing,” Kapler reiterates when asked to explain why success is now alluding his club. “It’s a collection of many, many things. And to try to boil it down to one thing doesn’t appreciate all the variables.”

But, beyond a lack of execution, why did this happen? How can the Phils go from the second best record in the National League is early August to a potential third place finish in the NL East?

“There’s no question that we can play better baseball,” Kapler said post game. “The men in that room are more talented and more prepared than the outcomes that we’re getting, the losses we’ve racked up recently. That does not change my confidence level in those guys. It certainly does not change their talent level and over many, many games the true talent level emerges.”

For starters, the Phils are a subpar 28-35 in divisional play. Meantime, the first place Braves are 42-21.

Starting pitching carried the team the first half of the season. Minus a couple of recent starts, Nola is still the reliable ace, but Jake Arrieta is slightly inconsistent, Zach Eflin came back to Earth, Vince Velasquez is hot and cold and Nick Pivetta certainly isn’t reliable.

The Phillies missed on an opportunity to upgrade at starting pitching. General Manager Matt Klentak publicly opines about the expensive nature of that market, except franchise icon Cole Hamels cost the Cubs an A-level prospect and a Triple A pitcher that unsuccessfully jumps between the bigs and minors.

The players the Phils acquired make the team better on paper. Wilson Ramos and Asdrubal Cabrera are professional hitters. Justin Bour and Jose Bautista provide pop off the bench. But, the bottom line is the team is mostly losing since those additions came to Philadelphia, and young guys are not playing as frequently. Developing J.P. Crawford made a rare appearance in the lineup Wednesday.

“You’re going to see the team that gives use the best chance to win,” Kapler said late Wednesday afternoon. “We’re also always going to factor in development and ensuring that our guys are seeing the field as much as possible.”

Crawford rewarded Kapler with a three hit performance, including a homer in. The entire lineup, however, did not give the Phils a great chance to win.

Many who followed this team since day one feel Kapler is the king of “spin.” Whether something is bad or good, Kapler will look for the glass half full approach. However, fans aren’t as positive. They’re speaking their frustrations at the box office. There’s a lot of empty blue seats at Citizens Bank Park lately. In late August, there was a paid attendance of only 21,083 for Nola against Max Scherzer.

At the single admission double header between the Phils and Nationals earlier this week, it was as quiet as a library. You could hear the 94WIP radio broadcast playing in the concourse from the seats. It even felt like the speakers were turned down because the sound was so loud. Unfortunately, the predominant noise during a pennant race should be from screaming, rally towel waving fans, but that’s not the case.

Kapler won’t even consider using the underwhelming atmosphere as an excuse for unsuccessful results .

“From my standpoint, if you can’t get up for a Major League Baseball team where there are millions of people who just would want to have any bit of that experience, you don’t have a pulse,” Kapler emphasized before the team’s fifth straight loss. “You don’t have a heartbeat. We can all get up and know we are competing for a playoff spot. It does not matter how loud or how quiet it is. We’re professional and nothing changes based on how much energy’s in the ballpark. It’s our job to bring the energy, not external factors.”

The near empty venue could be a result of multiple reasons, with one being some fans believe the season is all but officially over.

It would be a tremendous comeback if the Phillies rally by the Braves over the final two and a half weeks and make the playoffs. But, it’s incredibly unlikely. Finishing .500 or below, as far fetched as that seemed in early August, is more plausible.

In fairness, very few people thought the club would compete this well in 2018. They’re definitely one season ahead of schedule. But, the expectations changed when the franchise became buyers in July.

Baring an epic rally in the standings, the next key date for Phillies fans is when managing partner John Middleton addresses the media. Middleton is a native Philadelphian who hates losing. One can’t help but wonder what he’s saying as his team commits another avoidable error, reaches double digit strikeouts or coughs up a healthy lead in crushing defeat.

What does Middleton think about Kapler’s managing style or Klentak’s deadline decisions? How much does it irk him that Citizens Bank Park is as silent as “the quiet car” on a passenger train during meaningful games down the stretch?

It’s only a matter of time before we find out because the clock is ticking on the 2018 Phillies and I don’t think the “Baseball Gods” are going to give a flawed squad the miracle they need to play in October.

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