After 71 games — especially after the 71st — only a con artist could get anyone to believe in the Phillies as a playoff team.
Joe Girardi? Not even the glass-is-half-full manager will go there. Not yet, and certainly not Wednesday, when the Phillies coughed up 5-0, 9-5, and 12-11 leads en route to a 13-12 loss to the Washington Nationals that was unfathomable even for them.
“I think we’re pretty fortunate that no one’s ran away with it in our division,” Girardi said. “We have a chance to pick up some ground this weekend. But we need to play better.”
Girardi’s day began with Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo blasting him on Washington sports-talk radio for asking the umpires to check Max Scherzer’s hair for an illegal sticky substance Tuesday night. Rizzo accused Girardi of gamesmanship and labeled him a “con artist.”
It ended with Girardi watching embattled closer Héctor Neris give up a two-run single to Starlin Castro in the top of the ninth and blow his third save in 14 days. But Neris wasn’t alone in bullpen meltdowns. Archie Bradley, Sam Coonrod, and David Hale were complicit in the Phillies’ wasting separate five- and four-run leads in the same game for the first time since 2012.
Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski defended Girardi against Rizzo’s character assassination. He added that Major League Baseball has “encouraged” managers to request supplemental checks of pitchers if they suspect chicanery. And after speaking with the commissioner’s office, he said MLB believed Girardi was justified in suspecting Scherzer.
It must be more difficult, though, for Dombrowski to defend the Phillies’ play. They have lost three games in a row and six out of eight, and slipped back to three games below .500 (34-37) and into fourth place. With a four-game series against the division-leading Mets beginning Friday night in New York, they are 4½ games back (six in the loss column). They’re 13-23 on the road.
The Phillies’ odds of making the playoffs dipped to 8.2%, according to Fangraphs, after Wednesday’s debacle. But Dombrowski’s confidence level means more than anything. Because he will be the one to decide if it’s worth it to upgrade the roster before the nonwaiver trade deadline in five weeks.
“You said it: ‘Worth it,’” Bryce Harper said. “We have to be able to go there [New York] and win the games that we need to. We’re kind of depleted in the minor leagues and can’t really trade anybody, and we don’t really have anybody to trade down there to get guys who are really, really good. Dave Dombrowski needs to have faith that we can go out there and win games if he goes out and adds somebody and if it’s worth it when that time comes.
“I, of course, want to put pressure on him to do that, and as a team, we need to. But that’s only if we’re winning games. If we’re not winning games, then there’s no point in doing that, right?”
In more than 30 years of leading teams’ baseball operations, Dombrowski rarely has stood pat at the trade deadline. He has made aggressive moves as a buyer (acquiring David Price from Tampa Bay in 2014, for instance) and a seller (trading Price to Toronto in 2015). But it’s difficult to imagine him causing a splash either way before July 30.
Dombrowski didn’t come here to blow up the roster and rebuild it again. And for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2011, there are worse places to be than within shouting distance of first place in a bunched-up, mediocre NL East. But the Phillies are also more than one move from being a World Series contender. Since the start of last season, their high-water mark is four games over .500; the worst they have been is five games under.
“I’d much rather be seven games in front and say, ‘OK, this is what we need,’ but it is what it is in reality,” Dombrowski said. “You just deal with it. Hey, if you’re four games out — and I think we’re tied with two other clubs four games out [entering play Wednesday] — basically you control your own destiny, right? So you hope today is the day you start playing well.”
Wednesday wasn’t that day. Staked to a 5-0 lead, Vince Velasquez got knocked out in the fifth inning before Bradley gave up a game-tying three-run homer to scorching Kyle Schwarber. After Andrew McCutchen’s grand slam put the Phillies back ahead in the sixth, Hale gave up a go-ahead grand slam to Josh Bell.
Girardi used Hale because Ranger Suarez, Connor Brogdon, Bailey Falter, and Spencer Howard were unavailable despite the Phillies having two days off this week. Falter and Howard are being treated as starters and require extra rest between appearances.
The blown leads, then, were an indictment of roster construction as much as performance. Maybe Dombrowski can fix that. But given the Phillies’ other needs, will it make a difference?
Perhaps the next four games in New York will provide more clarity.
“You can go one way or you can go the other way,” Harper said. “We need to come out on top up there. Because if we don’t then it’s going to be miserable coming back from that. We can’t afford to do that right now.”
McCutchen’s slam was his 256th career homer but first as a pinch-hitter. ... Travis Jankowski, McCutchen’s left-field stand-in, picked up three hits, including a home run. The last time he did either: Sept. 26, 2018, for the Padres. ... The Phillies reinstated lefty Matt Moore from the injured list and optioned infielder Nick Maton to triple A. Moore will start one game of Friday’s doubleheader. ... The Phillies are off Thursday.