The playoff chances were hanging Saturday night by a thread, but the Phillies suddenly had a chance in the seventh inning of a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay.
They trudged through the first six innings, seeming to be on the path to their sixth loss in seven games. But then Andrew McCutchen, Alec Bohm, and Bryce Harper singled, and the Phillies were within a run with no outs and two runners on.
For a moment, it felt as if their season was about to be saved. And then the rally was over.
J.T. Realmuto grounded into a double play and Jean Segura struck out. Two innings later, the game was finished. A disappointing rally may have been enough to finish off a disappointing season.
The Phillies entered the season with baseball’s seventh-highest payroll. They hired manager Joe Girardi, upgraded their rotation with Zack Wheeler, and added Didi Gregorius to the lineup. But they did not address their bullpen, which has been the worst in baseball and was too much to overcome all season for a new manager and a couple of free-agent splashes.
So they left Tropicana Field on Saturday night after their rally fizzled with their fingers crossed. The Giants lost Saturday night so the Phillies will enter the final day of the season with a chance. The Phillies can reach the playoffs with a win on Sunday and losses by both the Brewers and Giants.
“You hate to have to be in a position where you have to depend on another team to keep you in the hunt,” McCutchen said. “But that’s what we have to do. They have to keep losing. That’s it. That’s where we are. It’s not the best place, but it could always be worse. We just have to hope they lose.”
A week ago, the Phillies were two games above .500 with an 87% chance to reach the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. They had flaws, but the Phillies still seemed like a postseason team in an eight-team playoff field. That now seems unlikely.
The Phillies went to Tampa with a goal of winning all three games. Instead, they will try to avoid a sweep on Sunday in a game that could be meaningless.
“I think all of us are pretty frustrated in this room that we’re in this situation,” Girardi said. “10 days ago, it looked like we were in a pretty good spot and we have not played well.”
Saturday was the 21st time this season the Phillies held a lead in a game they would lose. The Phillies led twice Saturday, 1-0 in the first and 2-1 in the fifth. But both were given up by Wheeler. Finally, a loss wasn’t saddled on the bullpen.
Girardi pushed Wheeler into the eighth inning as he threw 118 pitches. The Phillies seemed intent on keeping their bullpen as far away as possible on Saturday after they blew the series opener Friday night. Wheeler allowed four runs and seven hits, and struck out eight.
He may have allowed two leads to slip away, but he did enough to give the Phillies a chance. The Phillies have lost three straight starts by Wheeler as they failed to ride their $118 million pitcher when the season was on the line. In Wheeler’s and Aaron Nola’s last five starts, the Phillies are 0-5. It’s not a recipe for October.
The Phillies could have had an extra run in the third inning when McCutchen hit a ball to right field that looked to be a triple. But a replay review ruled that the ball was wedged under the padding of the wall, forcing McCutchen to stay at second base for a ground-rule double.
“That was tough,” McCutchen said. “That ball hits off the wall, I’m going three. Third base is still on my mind. It’s just a really unfortunate situation that we were put in right there."
The next two batters were retired and McCutchen made the third out at home when he was thrown out after Realmuto singled to center field. McCutchen would have scored if he was standing on third instead of second.
His solo homer in the fifth broke a 1-1 tie, but the lead was short-lived. The Rays tagged Wheeler for three runs in the bottom of the inning as everything seemed to spiral. Wheeler allowed three two-out hits -- two of which beat the shift -- to turn a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit.
“Those are frustrating,” Wheeler said. “When you get a ground ball and you think it’s going to be an out and then you turn around and nobody is there. That’s frustrating. You just have to go out there, make your next pitch, and forget about it. I wasn’t able to do that.”
The Phillies needed to win their final two games to finish .500. They’ll now finish 2020 with a losing record despite having a franchise-record payroll. It’s been nine years since they had a winning mark.
“If you don’t make the playoffs, and you don’t win the World Series, to me that’s what you play for. I don’t ever think you play for .500,” Girardi said. “That’s not my thought process. The goal here is to get to the playoffs and to win. That will never change for me.”
McCutchen was 4-for-5, accounting for a third of the team’s hits. The Phillies, with their season on the line, could not find a punch. But then they had the Rays on the ropes in the seventh inning. Perhaps they had enough fight to save their season with the heart of the lineup coming to the plate.
Instead, it was just another disappointment in a season filled with them. The rally was soon over. The game, too. And soon, the season may be finished as well.