The end began for the Phillies when, on a sultry South Florida night, Ranger Suarez -- who had been soft-tossing the Marlins to sleep -- told Joe Girardi his left arm was tight, again, just like his previous start. So, when Girardi decided to pull his closer-turned-starter after five shutout innings, just 71 pitches, you could hear the camel’s back breaking.
In a season littered with mountainous haystacks of incompetence and misfortune, this was the last straw.
The bullpen surrendered the lead, the Phillies lost two straight to the hapless, unsolvable Marlins, while the first-place Braves lost two in Colorado. And, just like that, the delicate balance between October baseball and early vacation swung irretrievably toward the golf course.
Three weeks ago, the Phillies had a realistic shot. But three things had to go right down the stretch of their soft end-of-season schedule in order to keep pace with and finally pass the Braves, who always were the National League East’s best team. None has come to pass.
First, slugger Rhys Hoskins had to get healthy. Hoskins’ season ended Aug. 26, when he announced he needed surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle.
Second, No. 3 starter Zach Eflin needed to return from his knee injury and pitch effectively in September. Eflin tested positive for COVID-19 on Aug. 27, the day after the Phillies lost Hoskins. The 10-day quarantine set back Eflin’s comeback to the degree that the Phillies fear he won’t return at all.
Finally, the Phillies needed Suarez to remain amazing. He has amazed, with a 1.71 ERA in his seven starts. But if he’s experiencing the dead arm Girardi says he’s experiencing, well, that won’t fix itself. Not in a playoff race. If he’s limited to, say, 70 pitches, or five innings, or if he has to miss even one start.
Strike One. Strike Two. Steee-rike Three.
There have been about a dozen moments like this in 2021 -- moments that left you feeling that the remaining games lacked any real meaning.
We’ve witnessed a decade’s worth of sloppy plays, like Jean Segura’s botched double-play attempt (and the resultant dugout blowup with manager Joe Girardi) on May 16.
We’ve seen wasted gems -- two, in particular, from inconsistent non-ace Aaron Nola. He struck out a MLB-record 10 in a row June 25 then watched newly anointed closer Jose Alvarez blow his first save opportunity. He then was perfect through seven innings before a reliever lost it with a wild pitch Aug. 22 in San Diego. That butchery came fresh off a gutting sweep at Arizona, home of one of the worst teams in baseball -- a team worse, even, than the Marlins, who stand (22) games below .500. The Phillies are 8-8 against those Marlins.
In the words of cinematic legend Joe Riggins, the manager in “Bull Durham”:
How’d they ever win eight?
They needed an extra inning Sunday to get to 8-8.
It is, indeed, a miracle.
Not your average Joe
The manager, for one, is how they remained relevant. After Sunday afternoon. they were 70-66, two games behind the Braves in the East, two games behind the Reds and Cardinals in the wild card race.
Girardi hasn’t been perfect. Still, for all of his over-managing and his misadventures with the pitching staff -- leaving starters in too long or yanking them too soon, trusting closers who shouldn’t be trusted with car keys, much less major-league wins -- Girardi has shown a measure of mastery with this cast of defensively deficient, would-be sluggers held together by gauze and liniment.
He’s gone stretches without left fielder Andrew McCutchen and catcher J.T. Realmuto, he’s gotten virtually nothing from shortstop Didi Gregorius, and he’s used about 14 different center fielders. He’s won with the anonymous quartet of Ronald Torreyes, Travis Jankowski, Luke Williams, and Nick Maton. Look ‘em up yourself. His starting third baseman, demoted prospect Alec Bohm, might not be seen again until this time next year.
Still, they are close. Girardi deserves credit for that.
But even Girardi cannot overcome these three strikes.
Neither can Dave Dombrowski, who performed a minor miracle at the trade deadline when he landed, effectively, two starters. Suarez was the closer before Ian Kennedy arrived. Combined with Kyle Gibson, who cost them failed pitching prospect Spencer Howard and two other throw-ins, Suarez and Gibson combined to give them 11 solid starts in their 14 chances.
Significantly, both Girardi and Dombrowski had to deal with a clubhouse that lacks the sort of leadership that encourages selflessness or intelligence. The Phillies remain below the 85% threshold of players vaccinated for COVID-19, which would afford them greater freedoms and, likely, would have averted their current and past COVID crises. In fact, the Phils were below 50% for most of the season. Who knows what sort of strain that created in the organization?
So you’re telling me there’s a chance ...
This isn’t a flag of surrender. Suarez might, in fact, rebound without incident; he said after Saturday’s shortened appearance that he didn’t think he’d miss a start.
Don’t count on it. Pitchers who have pitched in 34 games in as many different roles as Suarez -- then have to leave a game he’d been cruising through after just 71 low-velocity pitches -- seldom find themselves pain-free and effective in the weeks that follow. Girardi admitted Saturday that Suarez had been “nicked up” in his previous start.
A break and some Advil might straighten out such a pitcher before the kids break for summer, but after the kids have gone back to school, that sort of pitcher smells like former Eagles cornerback Izel Jenkins, whose nickname depicts overdone bread.
Who knew that Ranger Suarez’s dead arm -- Suarez, who came late to spring training, hurt his leg once there, and didn’t get called up until May, to be, of all things, a long-inning, lost-cause closer -- would have such a seismic ripple effect?