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Gabe Kapler applied lessons from September fades with Phillies to manage Giants into wild-card contention

The former Phillies manager has the Giants playing well in September after an 8-16 start, a reversal of how the last two seasons went here.

Gabe Kapler has had some September success this season with the Giants.
Gabe Kapler has had some September success this season with the Giants.Read moreEric Risberg / AP

The irony is inescapable. It’s just sitting there, staring at John Middleton, and there isn’t anything that he can do to make it go away.

Nearly one year ago – 352 days, to be precise – Middleton fired Gabe Kapler with one year left on his contract as manager of the Phillies. It wasn’t the 161-163 record in two seasons that prompted Middleton to take action as much as the 20-36 mark in the month of September. Middleton “kept bumping up” against that, as he said last October, and despite pushback from general manager Matt Klentak, the Phillies managing partner made a change.

What must have been going through Middleton’s mind, then, after Saturday night’s game at Tropicana Field? Not only are the Phillies 13-16 this month after a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, but they were left to hope that the San Francisco Giants – skippered by Kapler, of all people – would lose at home to avoid extinguishing their playoff chances in an expanded National League field.

Ironic, right? Alanis Morissette wrote a song about stuff like this.

The Giants did lose, 6-2, to the San Diego Padres, so the No. 8 seed in the NL will come down to the season’s final day. But the Sons of Gabe are still one game better than the 28-30 Phillies, who must defeat the Rays and get another Giants loss to ensure that September continues to be the cruelest month in Kapler’s iPad calendar.

And then there’s this: The Giants were never supposed to be in this position. They had the second-worst record in the league (8-16) on Aug. 17, a surprise to nobody considering they were in the midst of a rebuilding effort. Since then, they are 21-14.

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Kapler wasn’t about to tempt fate Saturday or to gloat about the possibility of shoving his former team off the cliff. But when a Philadelphia reporter asked whether he learned from the Phillies' flops in 2018 and 2019, he gave a typically candid response.

“I think we learn from every experience that we have,” he said via Zoom.

Specifically, Kapler pointed to learning how to better deploy relief pitchers, further irony considering the misadventures of the Phillies' historically bad bullpen and the reputation of his successor, Joe Girardi, as a master of bullpen management.

Giants relievers entered play Saturday night with a collective 4.24 ERA, sixth-best in the league. Phillies relievers had an unsightly 7.17 mark, which would be the worst 60-game ERA for any bullpen since the 2010 Arizona Diamondbacks went through a 7.77 stretch.

The disparity is a reflection of depth and talent more than how each manager has maneuvered. But Kapler was often criticized for his bullpen usage in Philadelphia and said he focused on getting better in that area.

“I still, in Philadelphia and here, try to put our bullpen guys in the best possible position to succeed,” Kapler said. "I think our bullpen has been a strength of our team over the last month, maybe the biggest strength of our team, and I think it’s in part due to how prepared they’ve been. All of that credit goes to them. But I think we’re also looking for the right part of the lineup for each pitcher to face. We don’t always get it right.

“But I guess the lessons from Philadelphia is really continuing to check in with our guys every single day to make sure that we know how they’re doing mentally and physically so that we continue to put them in the best positions to succeed. I think the philosophy is similar, but obviously we learn from every experience.”

Kapler didn’t exactly enjoy a honeymoon after being hired by the Giants in November.

He came under scrutiny for mishandling sexual-assault allegations against Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguers in 2015, when he was their farm director. He was ridiculed for assembling a 13-member coaching staff. In the season’s first weekend, he tried to replace reliever Tyler Rogers after pitching coach Andrew Bailey had just been out to talk to him. By rule, Rogers had to face one more batter after the mound visit.

It was reminiscent of Kapler’s first series as Phillies manager in 2018, when he brought reliever Hoby Milner into a game even though he hadn’t been warming up.

But Giants players have responded to Kapler’s style. Left fielder Alex Dickerson, for one, cited a pep talk from Kapler around the batting cage in late August, when he was batting .195.

“He just expressed confidence in me and [explained] why he keeps putting me in the two-hole and thinks that I’m going to be a big part of the offense and had all the confidence in the world in me,” Dickerson told reporters recently. “It meant a lot, especially at the time. I’m making a lot of hard outs, and you wonder if they’re even noticing that. Him mentioning that really helps you turn the corner."

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There are explanations for the Phillies' fade this year, notably a cluster of injuries in September to Rhys Hoskins (elbow), J.T. Realmuto (hip), Spencer Howard (shoulder), Jake Arrieta (hamstring), Roman Quinn (concussion), Scott Kingery (back), and Jay Bruce (quad). They’ve also had an unrelenting schedule of 34 games in 30 days, including five doubleheaders in 15 days.

But the Giants have had scheduling challenges, too. They had two games postponed because of a COVID-19 scare and another because of air-quality issues in Seattle.

“I know it has been this way for the Phillies, as well, and for other clubs around the league, but we’ve been presented quite a few challenges along the way, and our guys have done a really good job stepping up and meeting a higher bar,” Kapler said. “The personal pride I feel is how our staff has supported our players and how our players have responded.”

Kapler, a native Southern Californian, was probably always going to have more success winning over the Bay Area than hardscrabble Philly with his data-based approach, obsession with finding value at the margins, and general personality.

But by taking his new team to the brink of knocking out his old team, Kapler also proved that he wasn’t the Phillies' biggest problem, either, regardless of how Middleton felt a year ago.