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Phillies’ fading playoff hopes likely depend on a sweep in Atlanta after 6-0 loss to Pirates

Thin on starting pitching depth, the Phillies turned to prospect Hans Crouse to make his major-league debut. But it was the bats that fell silent in a costly defeat in the regular-season home finale.

Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto tugs out the Pirates' Colin Moran at home during the seventh inning on Sunday.
Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto tugs out the Pirates' Colin Moran at home during the seventh inning on Sunday.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Shortly before the Phillies played their final regular-season home game Sunday, Bryce Harper stepped out of the dugout, stood behind a microphone along the first-base line, and thanked the fans for their support.

“We’ve got six more big ones,” he said, reminding them of the Phillies’ most important road trip since 2011.

Then, in closing, the presumptive National League MVP said he hopes to see everybody back at Citizens Bank Park on Oct. 11, which would be Game 3 of the NL Division Series. Harper didn’t make a prediction. It was more of a save-the-date statement than a guarantee.

It’s OK to be cynical. The Phillies have missed the postseason nine years running, flirting with it the last two seasons before crumbling like blue cheese in September. On brand, they followed Harper’s speech by getting shut out, 6-0, by the 97-loss Pittsburgh Pirates and slipping to 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Atlanta Braves, who beat San Diego, 4-3.

The Phillies aren’t facing an impossible mission this week in Atlanta and Miami. But they probably need to sweep the three-game series with the Braves that begins Tuesday night. Even Harper knows that.

“As a team, as a whole, I think we’re confident going into Atlanta,” Harper said after the Phillies made Pirates rookie starter Max Kranick look like Max Scherzer. “We’d be up half a game if we went in there and swept. We haven’t played Miami very well the last couple years, especially this year, so yeah, I would imagine a sweep would be nice.”

Also necessary. With six games left, the Braves can clinch their fourth consecutive division with any combination of five wins or Phillies losses. Time is running short.

The Phillies’ warts were on display in the sun-splashed home finale. They turned to pitching prospect Hans Crouse to make his major league debut in lieu of a No. 5 starter, and Pirates leadoff man Cole Tucker hit the 23-year-old right-hander’s first pitch inside the right-field foul pole for a home run.

Neither closer Ian Kennedy nor Sam Coonrod was available out of the bullpen, leaving manager Joe Girardi to stick with erratic lefty José Alvarado, who gave up two runs in the seventh inning on four walks, a balk, and a two-run double by Ke’Bryan Hayes. Adonis Medina, called up last week from triple A, gave up two more runs in the eighth.

But the biggest failing came from an on-again, off-again offense that was off again. The Phillies mustered six hits against Kranick and four Pirates relievers, went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position, and left nine runners on base.

The Phillies were shut out for the 10th time this season and the second time in seven days. If they don’t make the playoffs, they will also look back on bookend shutouts in a seven-game homestand against the lowly Baltimore Orioles and Pirates.

“Of course we wanted to be able to sweep this whole homestand,” Harper said. “We weren’t able to do that, so we have to put this behind us and get ready to go in Atlanta. They have their three [top pitchers] going, we have our three guys going. It’s going to be a great series. That’s what you look for.”

So keep Oct. 11 free, if you’d like. But maybe don’t cancel other plans just yet.

J.T. comes up short

J.T. Realmuto was the prime runner-stranding culprit, twice coming to the plate with two on and two out and failing to deliver both times.

In the third inning, Realmuto chased a slider away from Kranick and struck out. In the fifth, he rolled into a rally-ending fielder’s choice.

“We just never got the hit when we needed it,” Girardi said. “We didn’t swing the bats particularly well today and it’s unfortunate.”

Out of their depth

Why did the Phillies have to turn to Crouse, who had made one career start above double A, in Game 156 of the season? Because their starting-pitching depth is nearly nonexistent.

Consider: When the season began, the Phillies’ rotation depth consisted of Matt Moore, Chase Anderson, Vince Velasquez, and Spencer Howard. They combined for 46 starts and a 6.51 ERA. Since late July, they traded Howard, released Anderson and Velasquez, and placed Moore on the 60-day injured list with a low back strain.

The choices, then, to face the Pirates were Medina, lefty Cristopher Sánchez, or a classic bullpen game with relievers who have been taxed this month.

“We knew that all three of the kids [Medina, Sánchez, and Crouse] were probably going to have to pitch today, and [Crouse] is the one that’s never really come out of the bullpen,” Girardi said. “We thought we’d see if we could get him through a few innings and go from there. They put a lot of lefties in there and his splits were good against lefties.”

Crouse held the Pirates to the one run through three innings before being replaced by Sánchez, who threw two scoreless innings.

Kranick’s homecoming

Kranick, who went to Valley View High School near Scranton, allowed four hits and three walks in five innings, but picked up a win in his eighth career major league start.

“He actually changed kind of what he did his last start,” Harper said. “He started throwing his cutter/slider thing that he has a little bit more his last start. I thought that was very effective today. We couldn’t lay off of it the way we wanted to.”