In almost every case, in nearly every season, the gap between one team with a 38-20 record and another with a 28-30 mark is multifaceted.
Occasionally, though, it boils down to one thing.
And as the Phillies began their most important regular-season series in at least nine years Friday night, it was obvious to anybody watching that if only they had the Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen – or any other group of relievers, really – they would be flaunting one of the best records in baseball rather than standing at the precipice of being shoved out of playoff contention with two games left in the season.
If that sounds harsh, you haven’t paid attention. Adam Morgan loaded the bases in the eighth inning, Hector Neris gave up a tie-breaking two-run single to Chester County native Joey Wendle, and the Phillies fell to the Rays, 6-4, at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
It would have been a crushing loss except for how normal it was. The Phillies' bullpen entered with a 7.17 ERA, which would be the worst 60-game stretch for any bullpen since the Arizona Diamondbacks had a 7.77 mark over 60 games in 2010. The Rays' bullpen, meanwhile, came into the game with a 3.50 ERA and tacked on four more scoreless innings in relief of starter Charlie Morton.
“We hate it. We hate that we have to wear the burden right now,” Morgan said. “But you know what? Sometimes that happens. We’re putting one foot in front of the other and trying to do the best we can. We’re not trying to be how we are.”
In falling to 28-30, the Phillies are assured of not finishing with a winning record for a ninth season in a row. Their chances of finishing in second place in the National League East and snatching the accompanying playoff berth dried up when the Miami Marlins defeated the New York Yankees, 4-3, in 10 innings.
The Phillies' playoff hopes now rest with claiming a wild-card spot, and they trail the Giants – managed by Gabe Kapler, who was fired by the Phillies a year ago – by one game for the eighth and final spot after San Francisco split a doubleheader Friday against the San Diego Padres.
With two games left for both teams, any combination of Phillies losses and Giants wins that adds up to two will extend the Phillies' playoff drought to nine seasons.
“We’ve got a really good pitcher [Zack Wheeler] going tomorrow. We know that,” manager Joe Girardi said. “Again, our guys have [been resilient]. They’ve done it time and time again, and they’re going to have to do it one more time.”
The Phillies are 10 games worse than the Rays despite having scored more runs (303 to 280), hit more homers (81 to 80), and posted a better team OPS (.787 to .754). The Rays' starting pitching has been better (3.87 ERA to 4.02) but not by enough to account for the difference in the standings.
It’s all about the bullpen, and it has been ever since the Phillies assembled for training camp in July and pitching coach Bryan Price talked about “trying to catch lightning in a bottle” with unproven relievers.
“It’s frustrating,” Girardi said. “We got a lead again, and we weren’t able to hold the lead. And then we weren’t able to tack on any runs after the fifth inning. Their bullpen is outstanding, and they came in and pretty much shut us down.”
When Wendle smashed a grand slam on Sept. 17, 2017, at Citizens Bank Park, it seemed like the biggest hit that he could have gotten against his hometown team. Given the stakes this weekend, it’s safe to say this one against Neris was more damaging.
But it was Morgan who put the Phillies in position to lose by loading the bases on a one-out single and back-to-back walks of Hunter Renfroe and Brett Phillips, who came in batting .174 and .148, respectively.
The Phillies led, 4-1, in the fifth inning but blew a three-run lead for the eighth time this season. Starter Vince Velasquez faltered in his third time through the Rays' order, and gave up two runs in the fifth inning.
“That fifth inning, I have to shut that inning down,” Velasquez said. “It’s very frustrating that I didn’t really complete my job in that situation.”
Tommy Hunter came on and recorded the final two outs in the fifth. He got the first out of the sixth, too, but then allowed a game-tying solo homer to Phillips – with an assist to home-plate umpire Chris Conroy.
Hunter thought he froze Phillips with a 94-mph sinker that clipped the inside corner. Conroy didn’t see it that way. And on the next pitch, Phillips smashed another sinker 422 feet to straightaway center field.
“That’s frustrating. It’s really, really frustrating,” Girardi said. “But you know, we’ve got to score more runs. And we’ve got to be able to do a better job and not walk people and give up free baserunners. I’m not going to blame that on the umpire.”
It was the second big hit of the game for Phillips, who was 1-for-15 since the Rays acquired him in an Aug. 27 trade with Kansas City. With two outs in the second inning, he stroked a two-strike curveball from Velasquez into right field for an RBI single that gave the Rays a short-lived 1-0 lead.
The Phillies stormed back with three runs in the third inning against Morton on back-to-back two-out hits by Alec Bohm and Bryce Harper. Bohm, 19-for-41 with runners in scoring position this season, picked up another clutch hit with an RBI single before Harper drove him in with a triple and scored on a throwing error.
They added another run in the fifth inning on an RBI single by Harper, marking the 10th consecutive plate appearance in which he reached base.
But the Rays' formidable bullpen shut it down from there, as the Phillies' combustible bullpen gave it away again in a script so familiar that it defies words.
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I have an answer,” Morgan said. “I know that everybody down there is working hard, and nobody is throwing in the towel down there.”
The fight might be about to be stopped for them.