ATLANTA — It was already hard to chart a path for the Phillies to the postseason, but that route became even more unlikely in the seventh inning Wednesday night when Jean Segura misfired a throw to first base and Odúbel Herrera failed to retrieve a routine ground single in center field.
The Phillies had to practically win their remaining five games if they were going to force their way into the playoffs. Their playoff odds were so thin that there was no margin for error, let alone unforgivable errors in a one-run game that turned into a 7-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves.
Segura made a sliding play to stop Jorge Soler’s grounder, but his throw to first was wide, allowing a leadoff single. Two batters later, Herrera overran the single by Ozzie Albies as the ball skipped off his glove and left runners on second and third.l
“I think it’s a play that Jean is capable of making,” manager Joe Girardi said. “I know it’s a tough play but I think it’s a play that Jean is capable of making. ... It was not a good inning.”
The Phillies were down by just a run, but any hopes of a rally would soon be extinguished when the Braves followed Herrera’s miscue by scoring four runs off José Alvarado and Héctor Neris.
The loss pushed the Phillies to the brink of elimination with four games remaining as Atlanta’s magic number dropped to just one. The Phillies knocked on the postseason door for the fourth straight year, but it again failed to open.
They had baseball’s lightest schedule in the second half but are just four games over .500 since the All-Star break and have won half of their games in September. They needed to surge in the second half if they were to avoid missing the playoffs for a 10th straight year. Instead, they have played average baseball for more than two months.
“Frustrating, for sure,” said Aaron Nola, Wednesday’s starter. “We’re getting closer every year. I feel like we had a good bit of injuries this year, but we kept pushing through and kind of stayed right up there for most of the year. But these guys played a little bit better then us the last two days.”
The postseason is nearly out of reach, but the Phillies should still find motivation when they return to Truist Park on Thursday as a win would prevent them from having to watch the Braves clinch their fourth straight National League East title.
“We’re going to go out and try to win a baseball game, for sure, and compete. We’re not just going to drop everything and fold,” Nola said.
Nola allowed three runs on seven hits in six innings in what is likely the final start of his season. If so, Nola finished an underwhelming year with a 4.63 ERA in 32 starts.
“Not that great,” Nola said when asked to describe his season. “Up and down. Yeah, I guess just up and down. I stayed healthy all year, which is a plus again and that’s always my goal.”
He struck out four and walked two on Wednesday night and allowed two first-inning runs that seemed deflating. Soler and Freddie Freeman started the first with singles and the Phillies soon fell into a two-run hole. Nola’s frustrating season would soon be finished.
“It’s been an interesting season, when you look at some of the numbers, they are much better than what the ERA reflects,” Girardi said, as some advanced stats place Nola among the game’s elite pitchers. “It’s just kind of a strange year. A lot of two-out hits that cost him. Just a strange year.”
Running out of gas
Neris has been the team’s steadiest reliever for nearly three months, but the effects of a heavy workload are finally taking a significant toll.
Neris retired just one of the four batters he faced in the seventh as he allowed a two-run double to Austin Riley on a 1-2 count and issued two straight walks before Girardi lifted him. Neris, who was pitching on consecutive nights, has appeared in 72 games this season, which is tied for the fifth-highest total in the majors.
“You can say it’s fatigue, you can say whatever it is but Héctor is capable of making it and I’m sure he’s frustrated by it,” Girardi said.
Neris’ strikeout of Adam Duvall was the 516th of his career, which is just three shy of Ron Reed for the franchise record by a relief pitcher. Neris, the team’s longest-tenured player. is a free agent after the season and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be back in 2022. That record would mean a lot, but it’s worth wondering how much more he can be pushed in the season’s final four games.
Harper slowing down
Bryce Harper willed the Phillies into playoff contention by playing every day for the last 10 weeks, but he may be reaching his limitations. Harper went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. He has seven strikeouts in his last nine at-bats.
“He’s been so good for so long that he’s bound to run into a day or two, right?” Girardi said. “I mean you’re just bound to do that. He’s been carrying a lot of weight for a long time.”
Harper has started 68 straight games and the Phillies have not gone a day without him in the lineup since June 27 as his last missed game was the first part of a doubleheader. His ability to play every day only helps his MVP case. But with the Phillies nearing elimination, it could be time to find rest for Harper.
No place for Bohm
The Phillies were facing one of baseball’s toughest left-handers, yet Girardi still drew up a lineup that included Didi Gregorius and not Alec Bohm. Gregorius entered Wednesday hitting just .155 against lefties, the 12th-lowest average in the majors.
It seemed like a chance to plug in the right-handed Bohm by either starting him at third with Gregorius at shortstop or moving Ronald Torreyes to short with Bohm at third. Instead, Girardi started Torreyes at third with Gregorius at short as the Phillies plan to use Bohm this week as a bench player after promoting him Tuesday from triple A.
“I told you what he was here to be,” Girardi said. “We brought him in to use him off the bench. We’ll stick with that.”
Maybe Girardi pulled the right strings. Gregorius singled in the second inning off Max Fried and Torreyes followed with an RBI single. The Phillies scored just twice and the players Girardi chose over Bohm were responsible for half the runs.