A Phillies staffer approached Rhys Hoskins last week with one final request. Hoskins had been pulled all season for charity appearances, photo shoots, even working a shift in the team store. In just 14 months, he went from triple-A slugger to the face of a franchise.
But there was one more thing to do: Could Hoskins address the fans before the season's final game?
So that is how Hoskins found himself on the field Sunday at Citizens Bank Park with a microphone in his hand, pacing the grass near the on-deck circle. He had done a lot since reaching the major leagues. But he never spoke to a crowd this large. Hoskins had two days to think about what he would say to summarize a season that spiraled. He spoke for 50 seconds, and five words stood out.
"We will learn from it," Hoskins said.
The Phillies ended their season three hours later with a win over the Braves. Their collapse was finished, and the playoffs began without the team that had owned the National League's second-best record on Aug. 5. The Phillies team that will report to Clearwater, Fla. in February could look quite different from the one that emptied its lockers Sunday after fading in August and September. Significant changes, general manager Matt Klentak said, are necessary.
The central figures of the organization — Hoskins, Klentak, and manager Gabe Kapler — have vowed that the Phillies will learn from the way they finished the season. And for 2018 to be anything other than a waste, everyone — from the players to the manager to the front office — must glean something from the collapse.
"I will tell you that I think there's a lot of valuable experience being learned," Hoskins said. "Things that are going to stick with you that you can lean on when we're in this situation next year. We have a chance to win the division next year just as we did this year. We're going to be able to lean on what's happened the last month or so, hopefully learn from it and swing it the other way."
The Phillies played most of the season with baseball's youngest roster. But age cannot be used as a crutch when that is how the team was assembled. Klentak added veterans in the summer, shed his team's young label, and then watched as the Phillies faded. It was easy to blame the demise on the influx of new players, but perhaps the Phillies were just not quite ready for the postseason.
And perhaps that collapse was a blessing. The Phillies might have been able to talk themselves into a quiet offseason had this roster reached 90 wins, won the division, and made a quick exit in the playoffs. But now, after the collapse, it is obvious that the Phillies have to be desperate this winter.
Some players they need to contend are not already in that clubhouse. Some — such as Aaron Nola and Hoskins — are, but the Phillies can't talk themselves out of making a push for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The front office learned from this collapse that the team must land a superstar before it lands in Florida for spring training.
"We have to be objective and look hard at ourselves," team president Andy MacPhail said. "That's the silver lining of this bad ending. Had we meddled along and won 84 or 85 games, we might have deluded ourselves into thinking we were closer than we were."
Kapler often talked about how he was managing his roster to keep the players fresh "into October." At the start of spring training, Kapler said the team was doing whatever it could to keep the roster "healthy and strong and recovered through not just April and May, but through September and October as well."
When Jerad Eickhoff went down in camp with an injury, Kapler said the Phillies could limit his early-season innings to keep him fresh "into September, October." When Kapler lifted Aaron Nola early on opening day, he said it was because "we were trying to think about his innings in September and October." Wilson Ramos couldn't play every day in August, but that's OK, Kapler said, because the Phillies were "balancing winning tomorrow with having him healthy through September and into October."
But the Phillies did not play into October and Kapler's highlight this month has been an early-morning radio argument with Angelo Cataldi. The Phillies, for the seventh straight year, are not playing meaningful October baseball. And the manager has a theory why. They lost 34 of their final 49 games before ending the season with consecutive wins. The Phillies, despite Kapler's attempt to prepare them for September and October, seemed to run out of gas in August. Kapler learned during the collapse that conditioning a team for a playoff race is easier said than done.
"I don't think you can argue the fact that to some degree, we weren't as mentally tough as we were capable of being in the month of August and September," Kapler said. "I think mental preparation is very similar to physical preparation. We get ready for a long season by physically preparing and adding armor in the offseason through weight training, running, conditioning, rest, and recovery.
"I think there's a mental component to that as well, where you begin to visualize how strong you can be in August and September. There's all different ways where you can exercise your mind in the same fashion. One way to get stronger mentally is to go through it."
Hoskins finished his comments before the season finale by telling the crowd that he couldn't wait for 2019. He will fly to Japan next month to play in an exhibition series and then will return home in time to help the Phillies try to lure Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. He said he will take time this winter to reflect on the season and how he emerged as a leader and the right player to hold the microphone on the season's final day. And he will certainly think of the way the season ended and how his team can learn from it.