The Phillies played 30 home games last season in front of empty seats, so the limited crowds they had for the first two months of this season often felt like a sellout. But Friday night — finally — they would be able to feel the buzz of a ballpark no longer limited by crowd capacity.
Manager Joe Girardi said before their 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals that he was excited to see what it would be like. The Phillies played last month in Atlanta just after they lifted their capacity limits. Perhaps South Philly would feel like that. Instead, it was impossible to know that the Phillies had opened Citizens Bank Park to full capacity.
The Phils drew just 15,130 fans Friday, which is the smallest crowd at a Phillies game — when the ballpark is 100% open — since Oct. 1, 2015. That day, the Phillies had an excuse as they were days from finishing a 99-loss season and had moved a night game to noon in advance of a coming storm.
There were storms on Friday evening, but they moved through well before first pitch as had been forecast. The ballpark was fully opened, but the city seems indifferent about a team that now is four games under .500 and has lost 12 of its last 17.
The Phillies hit seven homers on Tuesday night and scored 17 times, but that outburst didn’t help them on Friday. After two days off, the Phillies had just six hits and were stymied by Max Scherzer, who struck out nine batters and pitched into the eighth.
Rhys Hoskins started the ninth with a double to right field, but might have reached third if he had noticed right fielder Juan Soto had fumbled the ball. Girardi replaced Hoskins with Travis Jankowski, who was promptly caught in a rundown when he came too far off second base when a pitch was blocked by the catcher. Jankowski, who grew up a Phillies fan in Lancaster County, was booed by the 15,130 fans as he returned to the dugout.
“I saw a slider in the dirt. I was expecting a ricochet and it just hopped right in his glove,” Jankowski said. “I couldn’t do much after that. I was kind of stuck in the middle there. Really no excuses. Just a bad read. That one’s on me.”
Tuesday was the first time in seven games that the Phillies had scored more than three runs. Outside of that night in Cincinnati, the offense has been dismal. They have struck out at least 10 times in three of their last six games, had just two extra-base hits on Friday night, and gave away the potential tying run in a baserunning blunder.
“I had much higher hopes,” said Jankowski, a 29-year-old outfielder who joined the Phils this winter on a minor league deal and was added to the roster when Roman Quinn tore an Achilles tendon. “It’s all part of it. Hopefully, we’ll move past it and I can bounce back and continue to bring what I can to the team and help us win.”
“You have to be careful,” Girardi said. “A lot of times, it’s not the thought process that’s bad. You’re looking for balls in the dirt to move up. It’s the read, right? He didn’t see it get away from him. He was probably too aggressive and that’s what cost him. He knows he’s in there to score a run and do those things, and sometimes you can just be a little too aggressive.”
There is no indication when right fielder Bryce Harper and shortstop Didi Gregorius will return from the injured list, and the lineup is scuffling without them. It’s not a product people are lining up to see. The Phillies drew more fans last month for three games against the Red Sox when the ballpark was still under the city’s crowd restrictions.
“I’m not really sure,” Girardi said of the small crowd. “It changed. Originally everyone thought it was going to be the 11th or 12th and then it changed. We’ll just see what it looks like as we move forward. It is great to see all the people in the stands, though. It really is.”
The Phillies can expect a bigger crowd next weekend when the New York Yankees come to town. The ballpark was originally scheduled to open at full capacity for that series opener on June 12 before the city announced last week that it was lifting the COVID-19 crowd restrictions in time for the Nationals series. The news didn’t seem to help the Phillies sell many extra tickets.
“I think it’s really special,” Girardi said before the game about the ballpark re-opening in full. “I think we’ve been looking forward to this for a long, long time. You can go back to when we reported in camp last June, that we’ve been looking forward to these kinds of things. So I’m really excited to see what it’s like today. You know, we had a chance to play in Atlanta when they opened up. And it was like, ‘Man, this is great. I mean, this is what baseball is supposed to be like.’ So I’m really looking forward to this.”
Zack Wheeler pitched into the eighth inning. He has pitched at least seven innings in four straight starts. He struck out eight and allowed just two runs, but two runs felt like a huge hole for a foundering offense. Wheeler averages just 3.28 runs of support from his offense per nine innings, which is the ninth-lowest mark among all major league pitchers.
“I don’t think about that when I’m out there,” he said. “Honestly. I mean, I hear it from you [media] guys. I hear it from other people. But it’s not in my mind at all out there. My goal is to go out there and put up zeroes. No matter if we score 20 or zero. I think that’s the best way to go out there and deal with that. There’s usually just one guy on every staff that it happens to. It just happens. It’s not on them. It just happens sometimes. It’s baseball. Yeah, it’s unfortunate. I would like it to be a little different. But I know those guys are out there battling. They’re not out there trying to not score runs. I have all the faith in these guys. It’s just been a little down. But I have all the faith in those guys. They’ll come around.”
Wheeler’s first run scored on a shallow fly ball by Josh Bell in the fourth that went for a double when Andrew McCutchen was unable to grab it in left field. McCutchen was playing deep with two outs and his slide came up short after he charged for the ball. When the offense is struggling, every mistake becomes more crucial.
“A lot of times when big guys take a big swing and they don’t hit it far, it’s a tough read,” Girardi said. “ … When you don’t score a lot of runs, every little thing shows up in the box score. Every little mistake you make is going to show up.”
Two innings later, the Nats got Wheeler again with two outs on a homer by Soto. He flipped his bat after making contact and seemed to stare at Wheeler after stepping on home plate. It was Soto’s 11th homer in 21 games at Citizens Bank Park.
“I didn’t notice it,” Wheeler said. “I couldn’t care less.”
Wheeler had thrown 92 pitches through seven innings, but Girardi allowed him to start the eighth. He allowed a leadoff single before Josh Harrison popped up. His pitch count was at 101 and Soto was on deck for the first time since his homer. It seemed like a chance at redemption. Instead, Girardi came from the dugout. Wheeler’s night was finished and he walked off the field to a standing ovation. It was a nice gesture and the crowd was as loud as 15,030 fans could be.
“He was great again,” Girardi said. “He pitched really, really well. He gave up the one hard-hit ball to Soto and that was it. I thought he pitched a great game.”