Upon returning to his office Monday, Gabe Kapler described the previous seven days -- in which the Phillies went 4-3, including a sour-tasting split of a four-game series against the out-of-contention Cincinnati Reds -- as "maybe the road trip that stands out to me most since I've been here in Philadelphia about how much fight this club has left."
Let it be said that Kapler has wild-card fever.
Or maybe just a fever.
Regardless, the Phillies manager oozed bravado. His team was two games behind the Chicago Cubs in a five-team cluster for the second National League wild-card berth, and he was about to give the ball to ace Aaron Nola for a series-opening start against the division-leading Atlanta Braves.
But these are the 2019 Phillies. They don’t understand the concept of momentum. So, naturally, Nola allowed four runs over the first two innings, starter-turned-reliever Nick Pivetta gave up a back-breaking three-run home run in the seventh, and the Phillies were throttled, 7-2, at nearly half-empty Citizens Bank Park.
Wild-card fever. Catch it.
“I didn’t have my command of any of my pitches,” said Nola, echoing the synopsis of his last start, five days earlier in Cincinnati.
The Phillies didn’t have a baserunner against Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz until the fifth inning, when Corey Dickerson slugged a solo home run. They had only four more hits for the rest of the game, three of which were singles. Cesar Hernandez led off the bottom of the ninth with a garbage-time solo home run.
Entering Monday night, the Cubs were on pace for 86 wins. The Phillies must finish 12-7 to reach 86. But for a team that needs to roll off as many victories as possible to climb into the playoffs for the first time since 2011, they failed to win even a third consecutive game Monday night. They have won as many as three games in a row only three times since the All-Star break. They haven’t won more than four in a row all season.
And they have only 19 games left to do it.
“I believe that nothing is impossible,” Kapler said before the game.
But Nola couldn’t keep Kapler’s buzz going. He gave up a leadoff homer to Ronald Acuna Jr. on the second pitch of the game. Ozzie Albies singled on the fifth pitch. Freddie Freeman doubled on the eighth pitch. Josh Donaldson walked on the 14th pitch to load the bases. Nola finally recorded outs when Matt Joyce grounded into a double play, but the Braves still scored their second run.
The Phillies decided last month to start Nola as often as possible down the stretch. While other starters have received extra rest whenever a day off has allowed, Nola has pitched every five days in the hopes of maximizing the Phillies’ chance of winning.
But they have lost Nola’s last four starts, the first two, against the Miami Marlins on Aug. 25 and New York Mets on Aug. 30, because they failed to provide adequate run support. But he has gotten knocked around in his last two starts. He gave up five runs in four innings and lamented a lack of command last week in Cincinnati, and then this dud against the Braves.
“I feel fine,” said Nola, who has worked 184⅔ innings after 212⅓ last season and has the second-heaviest two-year workload of any NL pitcher after only Mets ace Jacob deGrom. “My body is healthy. My arm feels good."
And the Phillies don’t have any intention of taking his foot off the gas, especially because the coaching staff noted that his average fastball velocity against the Braves (93.8 mph) was actually higher than from May through July.
“That’s not something we’re considering right now,” Kapler said. “I understand why you’re curious about that, but for right now, we have him lined up to make as many starts as possible because he’s always our best option.”
Nola did settle down through the middle of the game and completed six innings. But not before the Braves tacked on two more runs in the second on back-to-back RBI singles by Albies and Freeman.
Since they swept a three-game series against Atlanta at Citizens Bank Park to begin the season, the Phillies are 3-7 against their division rival. The 90-win Braves have scored 96 runs in 13 games against the Phillies, an average of 7.4 per game.
“As a team they’re the best in our division,” Bryce Harper said. “One through four right there [in the batting order], their gauntlet is pretty tough. I think they’re hitting on all cylinders right now and I think they have all year. I think you can learn from a group like that."