WILLIAMSPORT — It was, by all accounts, a unique opportunity for the Phillies.
Even more, though, it was a missed opportunity.
By day, the Phillies jetted to this little town in the Pennsylvania hills, met and mingled with players from 16 teams competing here in the Little League World Series, and filled up their social media feeds with memories of the experience. Then, by night, they got rocked by the New York Mets, 8-2, and squandered a chance to move back into first place in the National League East.
Never mind that the division-leading Atlanta Braves got swept in a four-game series — at home, no less — by the Colorado Rockies. The Phillies dropped three of five games — four of which were played at Citizens Bank Park — against the non-contending Mets and remain a half-game off the Braves' pace heading into a six-game road trip that begins Tuesday night in Washington.
"We know that we haven't played as well as we can, and we're still a half-game out of first place," leftfielder Rhys Hoskins said. "So, it's hard to be too frustrated. It could be worse. We could not be in striking distance. So, yeah, frustrating, but I think at the same time, you can find some positive."
Once again, the Phillies didn't generate nearly enough offense. It was one thing to score one run Saturday night against Mets ace Jacob deGrom, who might just win the Cy Young Award. It was quite another to get blanked for five innings by lefthander Jason Vargas, who entered with an 8.10 ERA and had completed six innings in exactly one of his previous 13 starts.
For a change, though, the Phillies' starting pitcher didn't give them much of a chance, either. Nick Pivetta gave up four singles in a row to open a four-run second inning and was knocked out in the fourth, his shortest start since June 6 at Pittsburgh.
But hey, at least the game was decided before the Little Leaguers' bedtimes.
"I was leaving way too many good pitches to hit," Pivetta said. "Too many thigh-line fastballs and hanging breaking balls on my part, and I didn't really set the tone right there."
File it away as another wasted summer weekend for the Phillies, right alongside their recent series defeats by sub-.500 teams in Miami (July 13-15), Cincinnati (July 26-29) and San Diego (Aug. 10-12). Even the charm of playing in front of a packed house full of Little Leaguers in a bucolic ballpark that seats fewer than 2,500 people wasn't nearly enough mouthwash to rinse the sour-lemon taste of losing another series that a playoff-bound team should win.
"We understand that we've had some missed opportunities to take some steps forward," manager Gabe Kapler said. "At this very moment, I'm not thinking about how fortunate we are. I do feel like we're in a good spot in the standings, but I'm thinking about the fact that we need to take [Monday] off, regroup and be ready to play the Nationals and be prepared for that series."
Former Little League World Series hero Todd Frazier started the second-inning rally against Pivetta. Austin Jackson, Jose Bautista, and Kevin Plawecki followed with singles, the latter two driving in runs. After Vargas executed a sacrifice bunt, Amed Rosario lined a two-run single to give the Mets a 4-0 lead.
The Phillies didn't have a hit until Odubel Herrera's one-out single in the third inning. It took them six innings to match the Mets' hit total from the second inning (five). And it took Carlos Santana's two-run homer in the sixth inning to get the Phillies on the board.
It was more of the same from the offense. The Phillies scored 20 runs and went 9-for-37 with runners in scoring position in the five-game series against the Mets, with nine of those runs and five of those hits coming in the second game of Thursday night's doubleheader.
It has been the Phillies' play at home, in addition to their solid starting pitching, that is mostly responsible for their 68-56 record. But after playing their first neutral-site game in 61 years, they must make hay on the road, where they are only 27-34 and have lost eight of their last 11 games.
"There's still quite a bit of baseball left," Pivetta said, "not a ton, but still a good enough amount where nights like these, you brush them off your shoulder."
But you also don't need a bunch of Little Leaguers to tell you that missed opportunities begin to pile up, even in an NL East that nobody seems to want to win.