It could have been a different scene Sunday afternoon when Joe Girardi returned to the visiting clubhouse at Tropicana Field after the conclusion of the regular season. The Brewers lost in St. Louis and the Giants were trailing late at home.
The Phillies entered Sunday needing to win while both teams lost to secure a postseason berth. Girardi’s walk into the clubhouse could have been memorable. Instead - after a season-ending 5-0 loss to the Rays - it was bitter.
The Phillies needed to win one of their three games this weekend at Tampa, but were swept and finished the season on a nosedive for the third straight year. Girardi told his team that he doesn’t want to “be here next year on Game 162.”
“I don’t,” Girarid said. “I don’t want to be in the same feeling that we have. So we need to get better.”
The Phillies finished the 60-game season four games below .500 and lost seven of their final eight games. They missed the postseason by one game after blowing leads in 21 of their 32 losses.
They would have reached the playoffs with a losing record and played a three-game series on the road against the imposing Dodgers. But at least they could have called their record-setting payroll a postseason team.
Instead of planning for a three-game playoff series, the Phillies will have serious conversations this week about the future of the franchise.
John Middleton, the team’s managing partner, is expected to decide on the status of general manager Matt Klentak. Middleton compared Klentak two years ago to Branch Rickey and said he was one of baseball’s elite GMs after he signed Bryce Harper and traded for J.T. Realmuto.
But two disappointing seasons with high payrolls and mounting public pressure could change Middleton’s outlook. Middleton said he was not a “potted plant” last year after he overruled Klentak and president Andy MacPhail and fired Gabe Kapler. A year later, he has another decision to make.
“I have loved working with Matt Klentak,” Girardi said. “I think we have an outstanding relationship. We talk about situations all the time. I have loved working with him.”
The Phillies have not reached the playoffs since 2011 as they failed to sneak into an expanded format that includes eight of the 15 National League teams. Only the Seattle Mariners have a longer postseason drought than the Phillies.
A decade ago, reaching the postseason felt like a birthright for a franchise that suddenly became one of the proudest in baseball thanks to a strong minor-league system and dynamic front office. The Phillies began an arduous rebuilding process in 2015, trying to return themselves to the front of the National League. Five seasons later, the Phillies failed to finish in the upper half of the league.
“You play to go to the playoffs and you try to win it all. We didn’t play as good as a team as we went into these last couple games,” Didi Gregorius said. “...We didn’t play as good as we wanted, so that’s basically everything. We didn’t play our best. That cost us just missing out. That’s basically what happened.”
The Phillies came to the ballpark Sunday morning with a shot to make the playoffs after the Giants lost on Saturday night. FanGraphs gave the Phillies an 87% chance on September 19 to reach the postseason and that number dropped to 13.1% before Sunday’s season finale.
But they had Aaron Nola on the mound. And everything they needed to happen elsewhere was happening. Nola didn’t make it through four innings and the lineup did not score a run. The Phillies caught the breaks they needed - the Cardinals and Giants lost - but they could not do their part.
“It’s tough sitting here, not thinking about going to L.A.,” said Bryce Harper, who had two of the team’s six hits. “The hard things that we needed to get done today, they got done. The easy thing of winning, we just didn’t get it done especially the last couple days and the last week. We had opportunities to win games and we simply didn’t get it done. I feel like that’s been all year long.”
The Phillies failed to win during Nola and Zack Wheeler’s final six starts. Win one of those and the Phillies are playing Wednesday. The bullpen finished the season with a 7.06 ERA, which is baseball’s highest mark in 90 years. One less blown lead and the Phillies are playing Wednesday. They lost J.T. Realmuto, Rhys Hoskins, Jake Arrieta, and Spencer Howard to injuries for extended periods. Other teams battled injuries this season, too. But perhaps, the Phillies would be playing Wednesday if they were able to stay just a bit healthier.
They were packed in Tampa to fly straight to L.A. and begin their first postseason series in nine seasons. They just needed to win a game against a team who clinched the American League’s No. 1 seed a night earlier and had nothing to play for on Sunday.
Instead, they laid an egg. And Girardi walked through the clubhouse after a disappointing season came to a disappointing end.
“It sucks not to be in the postseason,” said Nola, who allowed three runs in 3⅔ innings and threw 93 pitches. “We’ve got ballplayers on this team and so it’s frustrating. But I’m putting on myself a lot too. My Septembers haven’t been that great. This year obviously wasn’t that great. I felt like I could have done more, put the team in a better position and it’s just frustrating.”