The Phillies did not whistle their way into work Monday afternoon, but apparently their energy drinks were at least half full when they arrived for the start of a four-game series against the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park.
With the team sitting on a seven-game losing streak, calls for manager Gabe Kapler’s job were on the rise and general manager Matt Klentak ranked a close second in the city’s latest unpopularity polls.
Gloom and doom, however, did not make the guest list for the manager’s pregame powwow with the media. Kapler constructed a lineup different from any other he has sent out this season and happily explained why he finally decided it was time to give Scott Kingery a crack at the leadoff spot.
A half hour later, Klentak could not wait to offer a vote of confidence for his beleaguered manager.
"I’m very well aware of all the criticism right now of the manager, the coaching staff, and of certain players,” Klentak said. “I understand why it’s happening. When a team goes through a stretch like we’ve gone through in the last couple of weeks, people are going to ask a lot of questions. My view right now is that the wrong thing to do is to point a finger at any one person and say you are the reason this is happening.”
If you were expecting some other reaction from either the manager or the general manager, then you have not been paying attention to the Phillies the last couple of years.
For better or worse, Kapler is Klentak’s manager. Not everybody in the organization agreed with Kapler’s hiring after the 2017 season, but team president Andy MacPhail believed in giving his general manager autonomy in the managerial decision. Klentak, in turn, believed that Kapler had the right combination of unbridled enthusiasm, people skills, and analytical expertise to be the right man for the job.
We now know and we should not be surprised that it’s going to take a lot more than a 6-16 stretch that cost the Phillies 10 games in the standings to convince Klentak otherwise.
“Nobody works harder, nobody communicates better, and he continues to make adjustments and get better,” Klentak said.
Kapler and Klentak are in lock-step agreement that the tide will turn based on what they saw in the first two months, when the team was on top of the division.
“Look, we’re toying with things to get going,” Kapler said. “One of the major themes of the day continues to be we’re going to stay light. We’re going to look to get our swagger back. We’re never going to be complacent. We feel the urgency. We’re not going to sit on our hands, but we’re not going to panic. One of the ways to demonstrate that is to show we’re very comfortable with trial and error.”
And that, according to Kapler, is how Kingery found himself at the top of the batting order for just the second time in his career Monday night. He’s sure to be there again Tuesday after collecting three of the team’s season-high 19 hits during the Phillies’ 13-7 rout of the Mets.
Kapler has not been guilty of a lack of trying during the Phillies’ recent free fall. Kingery, in fact, is the fourth player to be plugged into the leadoff spot since Andrew McCutchen was lost for the season to a torn ACL.
In the court of public opinion, however, Kapler has been found guilty of failing to discipline players for lack of trying, with shortstop Jean Segura and second baseman Cesar Hernandez being the worst offenders.
Fans wanted them benched for failure to hustle. Kapler opted to handle the situation via communication. Klentak said he supported Kapler’s handling of those situations.
“We work for the Philadelphia Phillies and we need to give the Phillies the best chance we have to win,” the general manager said. “To penalize the other 24 guys on the field by benching one and not putting our best lineup out there is not the right thing to do.
"That doesn’t mean you don’t address that. The instances you are asking about have been addressed and some of those conversations are very tough. They can get uncomfortable, but don’t for a second think they are flying under the radar and nobody is doing anything about them.”
The counterargument to Klentak and Kapler is that failing to bench a player for a lack of hustle sends an enabling message to the rest of the team.
This, of course, is not a new debate. It’s at least as old as Jimmy Rollins and Charlie Manuel. The Phillies are also not the first team to go into a tailspin in the middle of a season.
Teams handle these things in different ways. The Mets, for example, fired their pitching coach and bullpen coach last week and Washington released reliever Trevor Rosenthal despite the fact that they still owe him roughly $4 million over the remainder of the season.
Klentak said he has been involved with teams before that have made in-season changes.
“If you’re going to do that you have to believe that your alternative is better than your status quo,” Klentak said. “And I believe in our guys.”
There has never been any doubt that he believes in Gabe Kapler. We shall see if the general manager is punished or rewarded for that belief.