CHICAGO — Juan Nicasio caught the baseball from Rhys Hoskins on Tuesday night and walked back to the mound. The Phillies still had a one-run lead in the ninth inning, but defeat, by then, already felt inevitable.
The Cubs had runners on second and third, and the fans at Wrigley Field were on their feet, pleading for Nicasio to do the rest.
Kris Bryant started the inning with a walk, and Anthony Rizzo followed with a double to the right-field corner. The tying run scored on a bases-loaded chopper that Nicasio could not get quickly enough to home plate. And the winning run scored on a single to right field by pinch-hitter Javier Baez in the Phillies’ 3-2 defeat.
Nicasio, a reliever seldom used in high-leverage situations, was thrust into a save situation on the road against one of baseball’s best teams because the Phillies had a bullpen thinned by recent usage.
Adam Morgan was unavailable after pitching in three straight games. Pat Neshek was given the night off after either appearing or warming up in four straight games. Hector Neris (three of four games) and Seranthony Dominguez (three of five games) were off-limits, too.
So the Phillies turned to Nicasio, and the inevitable soon became reality. The deflating loss came a night after the most emphatic win of the season. They were on the brink Tuesday night of starting a challenging road trip with back-to-back wins. Instead, they walked slowly off the field as the Cubs mobbed Baez at first base.
“I think I’ve been pretty consistent with the approach of aggressively going after wins when we can lock them down,” manager Gabe Kapler said when asked whether there was a way to avoid having your four top arms unavailable on the same night. “I think you always want to balance winning tonight’s baseball game with winning a series and winning the long game. I understand the question.”
The Phillies were aggressive Monday night, and it earned them a win. But perhaps there is a way to balance that aggressiveness.
Morgan faced just one batter Monday before being lifted. A night off Monday for Morgan may have afforded Kapler the chance to use the lefthander in the ninth inning Tuesday. Or maybe Dominguez would have had some bullets left Tuesday if he was not pushed Monday into a second inning he failed to handle. It is safe to assume Neshek would have been able to pitch Tuesday night if he had not warmed up without being used a night earlier.
The Phillies went all-in for the first game of the series, but it bit them just one night later. And now Cole Hamels looms on Wednesday night.
“I think, over the course of a long season, sometimes that’s not the hand you’re dealt,” Hoskins said. “We’ve had to use some guys in big situations pretty frequently lately, and we’ve gotten wins because of it. I think this was a situation that everybody knew what we had going in.”
The shorthanded bullpen was called on for nine outs after Andrew McCutchen handed them a one-run lead with a two-run single in the seventh. Edgar Garcia and Jose Alvarez — two of the three pitchers below Nicasio in the bullpen hierarchy — handled the seventh and eighth. Kapler was three outs away from pulling the strings and earning a late-inning win. But Nicasio fell two outs short.
“We were strict, going to give those guys a blow. They’ve all been working really hard both in the 'pen and getting up and also in getting into games consistently,” Kapler said. “Again, definitely believed Nicasio could get the job done. We saw Alvarez get the job done, we saw Garcia get the job done, and we believed Nicasio could, as well. Again, we were asking a lot of him to go through that part of the lineup. It’s a really potent portion of the Cubs’ lineup.”
The bullpen entered after Zach Eflin allowed just one run in six innings. The right-hander allowed six hits and walked four batters, but stranded nine runners and held the Cubs 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Eflin’s lone run allowed scored from second base on a groundout to shortstop.
“It’s just bearing down when you have guys on base and making pitches,” Eflin said. “In the past, I’ve had a tough time getting out of certain sitatuons. But I stressed that a lot the past couple years to eliminate big innings and limit anything you can when you have runners in scoring position. Being able to make pitches under pressure. I was following that guide and trusting J.T. behind home plate.”
The pitcher battled to keep the game close. For the second straight night, a Phillies starter held his own against a difficult Cubs lineup and kept the Phillies in the game. But for the second straight night, offense was hard to come by.
Eflin’s start seemed set to crumble in the first inning after he allowed a run and loaded the bases with three walks. Pitching coach Chris Young visited him on the mound as the scoreboard showed the two-run triple Daniel Descalso — who was waiting to face Eflin — had hit a night earlier.
Eflin recovered, struck out Descalso on three pitches, and left the bases loaded. An inspiring start was ready to begin. But so was a deflating night at Wrigley Field.