John Middelton’s private jet was still 10 days from rushing to Las Vegas when the Phillies gathered in the middle of February to open spring training.
They were welcoming four former All-Stars to Clearwater, Fla. They did not yet have Harper on board, but they had Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, David Robertson, and Jean Segura. General manager Matt Klentak said the front-office had “done just about everything that we set out to do.”
"We’ve had an objectively excellent offseason, in my opinion,” Klentak said.
When Harper walked off Middleton’s private jet, Klentak’s “objectively excellent offseason” became even better. The Phillies had won the offseason. But that is starting to feel like a hollow victory. They entered Tuesday with 11 wins in their last 30 games. They were embarrassed Monday night in a 14-run blowout loss to the Dodgers. They are almost as close to last place as they are to first.
The Phillies are tied for the National League’s second wild-card spot, but it’s hard to see them staying there much longer. They are fading fast and there are six teams within three games of them. Reaching the postseason does not feel as close as it did in the middle of February with an offseason seemed excellent.
“If we don't, we don't,” president Andy MacPhail said Friday about the team making the postseason.
In just five months, the Phillies went from “objectively excellent” to “if we don’t, we don’t.” Their lineup - the one they spent all winter bulking up - is producing below the league average in nearly every offensive category. The bullpen is tattered because the three veterans Klentak signed over the last two winters are hurt. The starting rotation was neglected this offseason and it’s performing like it.
The Phillies entered Tuesday just two games better than .500. Their record is far from excellent. Instead, its close to being objectively average.
“Let me put it like this,” manager Gabe Kapler said before Tuesday’s game. “There isn't a day that goes by that we don't work our asses off. And there isn't a day that goes by that we don't relentlessly pursue the most minor adjustments that we think will make us better.”
He shuffled his lineup Tuesday, benched Maikel Franco, and searched for a spark. It has been three weeks since the team plugged in the curveball machine and rallied around a bamboo plant. The Phillies have been trying for five weeks to right their season. Each win - like Sunday’s walk-off victory - is hoped to be the one that changes the team’s course. But they have yet to find it.
Kapler spoke Tuesday afternoon to several players, asking them why they lost track Monday night of how many outs there were in an inning and trying to find their pulse after a humiliating night. He spoke to Rhys Hoskins, who has emerged as the clubhouse leader since arriving to the big leagues.
In early March, Hoskins pointed to a picture of the 2008 World Series celebration and said he was tired of hearing about that night. He wanted to feel it. A day earlier, Harper had agreed to join the Phillies. Middleton’s visit sealed the deal. Reaching the postseason was easy to imagine. An “objectively excellent” offseason had become even better.
But Tuesday, Kapler sought out Hoskins to see how things went awry. The Phillies are fading away from the playoffs. And if they don’t, they don’t.
“What was really focused on how we can come together as a team in these moments. He expressed there’s some frustration,” Kapler said. “We’re not playing well as a team. we talked about the different things we tried. We both agreed that there’s no panic. We play loose. we don’t let what’s going on around us impact our club.”