They’ve already lost their former MVP center fielder. Sunday, they might have lost their former MVP right fielder. Twice. And they lost the game.
For the second time in six days, Phillies veterans ignored the simplest of baserunning commands: Run hard. Be smart. Be safe.
The Phillies have most of the ingredients to make a run at the National League pennant: power, pitching, and poise. Add a pinch of common sense, and a dash of consistent hustle, and who knows how far they could go?
If they had run smarter Sunday, then maybe their 4-3 loss would have been a win. Instead, the middle of the lineup gave up an out and a base. That might not sound like much, but, for a contender, every out and every base is precious, especially when the culprits are the 2-3-4 hitters; even moreso when the ace, Aaron Nola, pitches 6⅔ strong innings and gives up just three runs.
The Braves won Sunday, cutting the Phillies’ lead in the National League East from two games to one. One out. One base. It might not sound like much in June, but it might be everything come September. The Phillies need to tighten things up if they want to play into October.
Andrew McCutchen tore his left ACL in a rundown last week in San Diego after Jean Segura failed to run out a pop fly. Sunday could have been much worse.
With two out and the bases loaded in the third inning, No. 4 hitter Rhys Hoskins popped a pitch high into foul territory. Bryce Harper, the $330 million superstar, was on second base. The ball, pushed by a steady, 15-mph easterly wind -- the same wind that had blown all afternoon -- predictably drifted back into fair territory, and fell. If Harper had run hard all the way he would have scored without drawing a throw. However, inexplicably, he rounded third, took two steps -- and stopped.
“Bryce probably could have run harder from second base,” said manager Gabe Kapler.
“Just got caught watching the play,” Harper admitted.
Segura had already reached third base, so Harper charged down the third-base line at Reds catcher Curt Casali, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound former all-state football player. Harper, who is listed at 220 pounds, slid at the corner of home plate as Casali caught the ball and applied the tag. The big men collided like bighorn sheep. Casali tumbled backward but held on to the ball.
Harper was called out; then, upon replay review, safe. That didn’t matter as much as this: Harper could have gotten hurt. Giants catcher Buster Posey broke his leg in 2011 in a collision that sparked a rule change.
Simply put, this collision didn’t have to happen. All Harper needed to do was put his head down and run hard. Just as Segura should have six days before.
Is there a team-wide problem?
“I don’t think we had our best game on the bases today,” Kapler said, pointedly. He has spent the past few days defending Segura’s role in McCutchen’s injury.
Harper was not alone in his transgression Sunday. Hoskins had dawdled at home plate, which cost him the chance to move to second base on the throw home. He gave away a base. Elite teams don’t give away bases.
Or outs. Harper’s second befuddling maneuver, in the fifth inning, gave away an out.
On third base with two out, a 3-1 lead, and Hoskins at the plate buried in a 1-2 count, Harper tried to steal home.
Against right-handed pitcher Sonny Gray, who saw him the entire time. With a right-handed hitter at the plate -- who, if he swings (which is more likely, given the two strikes) might knock Harper’s head off. Hoskins also is the clean-up hitter, and the team’s best hitter, and he leads the team with 13 homer runs, and he’s tied for the team lead with 44 RBI, and he leads all of Major League Baseball in pitches per plate appearance.
Harper gave away that out.
“I spoke to Bryce about that,” Kapler said. “He understands that was a little over-aggressive.”
Bryce sort of understands.
“He just grabbed me after that inning. Just wanted me to be safe. I think that was the biggest thing. Rhys may be swinging right there, things like that. Nothing you can do now," said Harper. "Thought I had a good read, good jump. I probably should know if my guy has a take sign or not just in case he swings and puts one right in my face.”
His only regret: “I think if I just slid head first, got my hand in there a little bit, it probably would have been better.” So, yeah, he sort of understands.
As Harper spoke, as if to underscore the insanity of his head-first assertion, McCutchen walked into the clubhouse on crutches.
Look, we love aggression. It pressures the defense. It sets a tone. It engages players during a 162-game grind. It’s amplified when the most famous player on the team plays hardest.
That said, there’s a difference between aggression and recklessness.
Aggression is Harper stealing second base in the third inning, with two out and with Segura hitting, taking advantage of the fact that the Reds had ignored him at first base. Aggression is Harper taking second base on his single to right field in the fifth inning when the Reds missed the cutoff and threw all the way home. As Kapler noted, Harper’s aggressive baserunning has helped the Phillies reach first place in the first place.
On the other hand, recklessness is stealing home when you have only three steals for the season, and you haven’t even tried to steal home in seven years. (Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels hit Harper on the backside on May 6, 2012. Harper, a 19-year-old Nationals rookie, wound up on third base, then stole home. But that was against a left-hander. And that left-hander was throwing to first base at the time.)
There’s also a difference between intensity and indifference.
Last week, when Segura hit his fateful pop fly toward second base, he fell to one knee in the batter’s box then, inexcusably, he jogged to first base. Second baseman Ian Kinsler saw him jogging and realized that he could let the ball drop, throw to first, and still catch McCutchen in a rundown to complete a double play. McCutchen got hurt in the rundown.
Sunday, it was Harper, and Hoskins, who stopped running.
Sunday, it was Harper who could have gotten hurt.