Gabe Kapler promised a fight and nothing more before the Phillies started a six-game homestand last Monday against the Atlanta Braves. The manager made that pledge after his team had just won two of three games from the New York Mets at Citi Field last weekend to remain within striking distance of the Chicago Cubs, who led the race for the NL’s second wild card.
“I think we need to keep demonstrating the fight we had on this road trip,” Kapler said before the Phillies boarded their team buses back to Philadelphia. “I think in order for us to be successful we need to continue to fight.”
They needed more than that, of course. They needed wins. They needed to go at least 4-2 in their six games against the Braves and Boston, a tall task given the talent disparity between the Phillies and those two teams. Instead, Kapler’s crew lost four of six, including Sunday’s 6-3 setback to a Red Sox team that came to town with nothing to play for, a year after winning the World Series.
The Phillies have had just one winning homestand since the All-Star break and are 16-18 at Citizens Bank Park in the second half of the season. That is one of many reasons they have become pretenders rather than contenders in the race for the National League’s final wild-card berth.
And now they must embark on a 10-day, 11-game road trip that presents the same degree of difficulty as a 4½ somersault in the pike position; the most difficult of all dives. Speaking of dives, the Phillies plummeted to 4 ½ games back in the wild-card race with 14 to play after the Cubs put up another double-digit run total in their win over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field.
“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 game going forward.”
Kapler and the Phillies did fight in Sunday’s loss to the Red Sox. Well, they at least argued. All it got them, however, was a couple of ejections, one of which they could ill afford.
Already down 5-1 after Jason Vargas surrendered a third-inning grand slam to Boston catcher Christian Vazquez, Bryce Harper went to the plate with nobody out in the bottom of the fourth after J.T. Realmuto reached base on an infield single. Harper had been caught looking at a third strike on a two-seam fastball in the first inning from right-hander Rick Porcello and he was looking for that same pitch down in the count 1-2 in his second at-bat. Porcello did, in fact, throw the same pitch and Harper looked at it again only because he was sure it was inside.
Home-plate umpire Gabe Morales called the pitch a strike. While Rhys Hoskins batted, Harper went to the video room to confirm his belief that the pitch was inside. Both the video and the pitch tracker on MLB.com’s Gameday app showed the pitch was not a strike. Harper’s trip to the video room was followed by a return to the dugout and a word for Morales behind the plate.
“I said, ‘It’s not even ----ing close,’ and that was it,” Harper said.
That was enough to get Harper ejected from a game the Phillies needed to win. Kapler also joined his star player in the clubhouse after sprinting from the dugout and engaging in a heated argument with Morales.
“I think everyone can look at the pitch and see why both Bryce was upset and I was upset on his behalf,” Kapler said. “It’s an enormous game, obviously, with a lot of implications, and I obviously thought Bryce was right about the pitch. But just as importantly, I thought in a game of this magnitude there could have been a little bit longer of a leash to allow him to stay in the game and allow it to play out on the field.”
Harper was right about the pitch. Kapler was right about Morales’ need for more restraint because none of the 39,061 customers came to see the third-year umpire call balls and strikes. It’s also disturbing that Morales did not have to be held accountable for his actions afterward. Approached by a pool reporter 15 minutes after the game, Morales said he was unable to talk because crew chief Jerry Meals had already left the ballpark.
If that’s a baseball rule, it’s a weak one.
Still, it would be a reach to suggest that Morales’ botched call and itchy ejection finger were the reasons the Phillies lost to the Red Sox Sunday.
By that point, Vazquez had already hit his grand slam off Vargas, who has a 7.17 ERA in his last five starts after posting a 3.91 ERA in his first four starts following his trade from the Mets. Just add that to the list of reasons the Phillies’ playoff drought is going to extend to an eighth straight season.