After getting called out on strikes in the fourth inning Sunday, Bryce Harper had a message for home-plate umpire Gabe Morales.
"You have to be better," he said.
The irony, of course, is that the same must be said for Harper and the fading Phillies.
In their most desperate moment yet this season -- trailing by four runs against the Boston Red Sox and facing a 4½-game deficit in the wild-card chase with an 11-game, 10-day road trip to Atlanta, Cleveland, and Washington looming as their last stand -- the Phillies had to try to rally without their $330 million superstar, one of their two hottest hitters since the All-Star break.
Guess how that turned out.
Harper got ejected by Morales for arguing from the dugout. Manager Gabe Kapler got tossed for defending Harper. And to nobody's surprise, the Phillies lost again, 6-3, after starter Jason Vargas gave up a grand slam in the third inning and the offense went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and struck out 10 more times.
“I said, 'It’s not even [expletive] close and that’s it,” Harper said. “I didn’t say a word after that until he tossed me. Then I walked down the dugout and came back and kind of let him have it. It just [stinks].”
Put aside, for the moment, that the pitch in question, a sinker from Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, appeared to be too far inside. Or that Morales abided Harper’s initial objection as he turned and walked back to the dugout. Or that Harper went into the video room, watched a replay of the pitch, returned to the dugout, and hollered at Morales again.
Given the circumstance -- a mid-September game in the midst of a five-team race for the final National League wild-card spot -- Kapler believed that Morales should have allowed Harper additional leeway.
“In this particular case, I thought Bryce had an opportunity to say his piece and the best thing at that point would’ve been to give him a little bit more room to say his piece,” Kapler said. “I just think it was a big enough situation where a little bit longer leash would’ve been valuable.”
By his actions, Morales clearly disagreed, although he declined to comment through a pool reporter after the game because crew chief Jerry Morales had already left the ballpark.
Having had five innings to consider his 13th career ejection and second this season, Harper seemed to realize that he must do a better job keeping his cool. Even if he didn’t back down from his opinion that Morales missed a critical call with a runner on first base, nobody out, and the Phillies trailing, 5-1, after Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez’s third-inning grand slam against Vargas, who is 0-3 with a 5.48 earned-run average in nine starts since being acquired in a July 29 trade with the New York Mets.
“I usually don’t complain unless it’s there,” Harper said. "I’m pro-pitcher, too. If a pitcher throws a good pitch, I’m all about it. First at-bat, Porcello threw that front-hipper and punched me out, so I tipped my cap to him right there.
"Next at-bat, I’m kind of sitting on the same pitch. He kind of did the same thing and it wasn’t close. You get into a 2-2 count against him and you see another pitch. He might have punched me [out] on the next pitch, but also I might have hit a double in the gap.
"It's just tough. You can't get thrown out in that situation, of course. I don't want to get thrown out in that situation. But, you know, it happened."
So did this: The Cubs routed the Pittsburgh Pirates for a third consecutive day at Wrigley Field. Not only do they lead the Phillies by 4½ games for the final wild-card berth, but the Phillies also must climb over the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets.
The Cubs are on pace for 88 wins. To match that total, the Phillies must go 12-2 over the last 14 games. They haven't won more than four games in a row all season.
Entering play Sunday, the Phillies had a 1.8 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the public-facing projection model at Fangraphs. After the game, the odds decreased to 0.8 percent.
"Definitely a tough spot," Kapler said. "From here on out it’s like Game 7 of a playoff series. Every time we play a baseball game it’s Game 7 of a playoff series, and we look to scratch and claw and fight to win each one of them going forward."
In other words, they will try to be better.