When a team is 30 games under .500 in July and frustration boils, the few players who carried high expectations are targets. Odubel Herrera launched a ball 401 feet on Tuesday night and was excited. But his opponent, first-place Houston, mocked him. He did not run on a dropped third strike, a sin that is repeated by players every night. But his manager benched him for the final three innings of a 5-0 Phillies loss.
"He's a different kind of guy," manager Pete Mackanin said. "I just have to keep him pointed in the right direction."
Herrera turns 26 in December. He is in his third major-league season, having skipped triple-A baseball. He signed a $30.5 million contract before this season. He has been the Phillies' best hitter for weeks.
And Tuesday was a bad night.
The first two games of this series between two teams separated by 32 games in the standings have developed as expected. Houston has averaged 7.3 runs per game on the road, the highest mark since the 1939 Yankees — a group that won 106 games and swept the World Series.
Rookie righthander Nick Pivetta, for the game's first five innings, mastered Houston's depleted but potent lineup. He retired 16 of the first 18 batters he faced. But the Astros collected five hits — four singles — in the sixth and pushed the game to a comfortable waltz.
It's good to be the Astros, a team that endured a painstaking teardown much like the Phillies' current one. They were laughingstocks for years. Now, they are savants.
Houston signed Charlie Morton, a Phillies castoff, for $14 million and rode him Tuesday for seven scoreless innings. They promoted Derek Fisher — an outfielder from Lebanon, Pa., they almost traded to the Phillies two winters ago — and watched him deliver an important two-run single in the sixth inning.
The Phillies' current centerfielder is a provocative enigma. Herrera was removed from the game in a double switch after he struck out for the second out in the bottom of the sixth. He did not appear ready for a pitch that was a called strike. Then he did not run to first after whiffing at a pitch in the dirt. Some fans booed him.
"Odubel does a lot for us," Mackanin said. "He's just a different character. We have to deal with him in a certain way. I'll have a nice talk with him tomorrow. He's going to be fine. He's been doing very well for the last month or so. But he just needs a reminder."
Herrera had departed the clubhouse when reporters entered after Tuesday's game. Catcher Cameron Rupp, one of the more tenured players, said the team's frustration with Herrera's occasional absentmindedness is "not a secret."
"Pete is the manager and what he asks us to do, we're supposed to do," Rupp said. "It's a team thing and one guy can't just not follow the rules. It's not the first time. It has happened before and that's something we don't want to see. We want him in the game. He's a good player."
Rupp added: "It's hard for us. He's a grown man. He has to learn on his own. We can only say so much."
Earlier, in the first inning, Herrera clobbered a ball to deep center. He emphatically flipped his bat, as his wont to do, and jogged to first base. The ball did not leave the yard, nor was it a hit. Fisher grabbed it at the wall. A replay of Herrera and his exuberant bat ejection played on the giant scoreboard. Players in the Astros dugout made fun of Herrera.
"I know him," Morton, 33, said. "That's how he plays the game. I don't mind it. I can see how guys do."
"He's a guy that's fun to watch," Fisher, 23, said. "That's from someone on the outside looking in. Being from this area in the offseasons and just following baseball in general, he's just a fun player to watch. I know he does that, but he has fun playing the game. I like that."
Herrera has been the Phillies' best hitter this month. He is batting .348 with a .408 on-base percentage and .623 slugging percentage. Those numbers are .331/.374/.560 since June 1. But Tuesday was a bad night. He is a maddening player, albeit a talented one.
That does not excuse the mental errors, but it can make them easier to stomach. Sometimes.
"He's going to end up hitting over .290," Mackanin said. "Let's put it this way: He's in a development stage, as well."