WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper hesitated, ever so slightly, as he rounded second base and headed for third. And that hesitation — a fraction of a second, really — told you everything you need to know about how things have gone for the Phillies lately.
This is what it looks like when a team is pressing.
The Phillies entered Wednesday having lost five of seven games. They hadn’t played since Sunday’s blowout in Atlanta either, the weather in Washington not cooperating for the last two days. So with the rain finally clearing out and the Phillies trailing by one run in the sixth inning of the matinee opener of a day-night doubleheader, Harper pushed the envelope and tried to go first-to-third on Scott Kingery’s ground-ball single up the middle.
Nationals center fielder Gerardo Parra barehanded the ball and came up throwing. If not for the slight pause, maybe Harper would have beaten the throw. Then again, maybe not. Either way, the play was risky given the situation. Rather than first and second with nobody out for Rhys Hoskins, Harper made the first out of the inning at third base.
The play became a footnote to the final outcome, as lefty Cole Irvin gave up back-to-back homers in the eighth inning and turned a two-run deficit into a 6-2 loss. But it encapsulated the last few weeks for a Phillies team that is seemingly coming undone thanks to a rash of injuries, a shortage of pitching, and an offense that tends to come and go.
“Ultra-aggressive baserunning play. Really liked it,” manager Gabe Kapler said between games. “Out by this much, by a hair. If he doesn’t have that very slight hesitation, which he knows, he’s safe at third base. Not questioning the decision at all. I really think he’s safe if he doesn’t hesitate.”
When Zach Eflin starts, the Phillies’ offense usually goes quiet. It was the case once again, with Nationals lefty Patrick Corbin — the offseason free-agent target that the Phillies might most regret letting get away — holding them one run on four hits in seven innings.
The Phillies have scored fewer than four runs in nine of Eflin’s 14 starts. Seven days after he lost a 2-0 decision to the Arizona Diamondbacks, he left with a 3-1 deficit after six innings, once again falling prey as much to a lack of a support as anything else.
Eflin gave up an unearned run in the first inning on a rally aided by Kingery’s error a third base. He gave up another run in the fourth on a double by Matt Adams and a two-run RBI double by Parra.
Kapler shrugged off the idea that Harper’s over-aggressiveness was a product of the Phillies struggling to score runs, citing the star right fielder’s daring style earlier in the season, too, and insisting that “it’s more just his personality on the bases.” But there were other signs of a desperate offense, chiefly Sean Rodriguez swinging at a 3-0 pitch and grounding out to strand two runners in the sixth inning.
“Love it. Love it,” Kapler said, adding that Rodriguez had a green light to swing on 3-0. “Where we are in the lineup, it’s just the right play. Left-hander on the mound, [Rodriguez] does damage against lefties. He has a chance to hit a double or a home run. Love it. Great play. That is representative of exactly what we want him to do in that situation.”
The Nationals padded their lead against Eflin in the bottom half of the inning on a leadoff walk by Juan Soto and an RBI double by Brian Dozier.
“I’m really unhappy about the walk to Soto after going 0-2, then giving up a stolen base and a base hit," Eflin said. “That’s just bad baseball on my part. It can’t happen. I really preach to myself not to give up free bases and then letting him steal, and it’s downhill from there.”
Irvin, a starter until the last few days, seemed to be a curious choice to pitch the eighth inning of a two-run game. But Kapler explained that lefty Jose Alvarez was ready to pitch if the Phillies had tied the game, while Irvin was the choice with a deficit.
“We have pitchers on our roster that we have to trust,” Kapler said. “We trusted Cole there.”
Irvin fell behind in the count against both Dozier and Parra, who went deep to stretch the margin to 6-1. Irvin remains a candidate to make a start either Saturday or Sunday at home against the Miami Marlins, although he has gotten hit hard in his last two appearances, both relief outings.
“He’s the type of pitcher who has to pitch ahead in the count,” Kapler said. “He has to be very, very aggressive. Put hitters on their heels and put them away. When I say, ‘put them away,’ I don’t mean he has to strike batters out. The idea is to get into an 0-2 or 1-2 count and continue to stay on the gas pedal and put hitters on their heels. He wasn’t able to do that today.”
The Phillies jumped to a 1-0 lead when Kingery went deep in the first inning. It marked Kingery’s ninth home run in his 123rd at-bat this season. He hit eight homers in 452 at-bats last year.