Before the Phillies left Citi Field on Sunday after losing yet another series to the New York Mets, manager Gabe Kapler did his best to look ahead. He said his team would immediately turn the page and look forward to returning home, where they had played so well for most of this season.
Having now witnessed the start of the next chapter, it is clear that the story of this 2018 season will not end well for Kapler and his team. The Phillies came home Monday to find that the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park had become an unplayable quagmire because the grounds crew whiffed and left the infield uncovered Friday night during an unexpected downpour.
That forced the Phillies to play a doubleheader Tuesday that started after they added three more pitchers, bringing the total number of players on the roster to 39. No one bothered to count, but the number of people in attendance at the 3:07 p.m. start of the first game also appeared to be right around 39.
It made for a bizarre atmosphere in which fans could lodge loud complaints from the stands with the assurance they were being heard. They had plenty, too, because the Phillies' performance during a 3-1 loss to the Washington Nationals was every bit as lifeless as the ballpark itself. Kapler was the primary target of their discontent.
The manager, with the benefit of a bullpen that was filled to the brim, made three pitching changes in the fifth inning when the Nationals scored twice to take the lead. With each trip to the mound, the expletives directed at the manager from the sparse crowd grew louder and clearer. They see a team that has refueled with a cast of new players but is still running out of gas.
"One thing that we continue to focus on is who can perform best under sub-optimal conditions," Kapler said when asked about the empty ballpark for the first game. "So optimal conditions are a packed house and really fired up and energetic and sub-optimal conditions are when you have more challenging situations. And I think today was a more challenging situation and we always challenge our guys to do the best under those circumstances that they possibly can."
So how did the manager think his club responded to playing a vital September game in a mundane atmosphere?
He paused before answering that one.
"Um … I think that we can always challenge ourselves more," he said.
That's about as close as Kapler will ever come to criticizing his team.
"I think what I focus on here is that we just don't ever quit," Kapler said. "So when the last game doesn't go the way you want it to go you turn the page and get ready for the next game. That's what I said after the New York series and I'm going to say it before [the second game of the doubleheader] as well. Turn the page and prepare to win the second game."
Kapler obviously did not have a preview copy of the second page of the doubleheader, which ended with a ninth-inning collapse and a 7-6 loss in 10 innings. The manager has been calling those kinds of losses gut punches all season. This one, though, was a Joe Frazier left hook that left their season in critical condition.
It now seems possible that they could finish under .500 and behind the Nationals, who are only 1½ games behind them.
The second-game loss deserved to be in the conversation for worst defeat of the season and that's saying something when you consider how many games the Phillies have blown. The manager deserved most of the blame, too. After making pitching changes at light speed in the first game and through much of the second, he let Seranthony Dominguez struggle through the ninth inning before finally removing him with the bases loaded and two outs. Dominguez had thrown a season-high 43 pitches and allowed two runs to score.
Luis Garcia came on and issued a bases-loaded walk that tied the score and the Phillies lost in the 10th when Nats 19-year-old phenom Juan Soto homered off Yacksel Rios.
At least Kapler did not go into the spiel about the Phillies being in a good position to strike even though they have been playing bad baseball for well over a month. That ship has sailed. By losing 22 of their last 33 games, they have left the Braves in firm control of the NL East race.
Oh, sure, they still will play seven of their final 11 games against the first-place Braves and they are very much mathematically alive. Diehards can point to the 2007 Phillies and say they were seven games behind the Mets with 17 to play and managed to pull out the division title. That team 11 years ago led the National League in runs scored and was terrific on defense.
This team draws lots of walks, sees lots of pitches and still struggles to score runs. And the 2018 Phillies are a disaster defensively. The Phillies scored once on five hits in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader even though they were facing Erick Fedde, a rookie righthander who entered the game with a 6.00 ERA.