Dallas Keuchel was on the mound Wednesday night, pitching in South Philly in a September pennant race. These were the nights the former Cy Young winner was signed for, brought on to be the pitcher that gets his team to October.
And that team could have been the Phillies. Instead, Keuchel came to South Philly with the rival Braves, who are ordering their champagne while the Phillies calculate their playoff chances. The Phils passed on Keuchel in June and watched him stifle them in September in their own ballpark.
Keuchel struck out eight batters in six innings as the Phillies fell to the Atlanta Braves, 3-1, while their lofty playoff hopes faded.
“If you don’t come calling, what is there for me to be mad about?” Keuchel said. “I think a lot of those guys over there in the front office are second-guessing themselves. I mean, I would too.”
Wednesday night was Keuchel’s 16th start with the Braves and his sixth straight start allowing two runs or fewer. The Phillies were in first place when Keuchel signed with the Braves. On Wednesday night, the Braves increased their first-place lead to 15 games over the Phillies. Keuchel would not have ensured October baseball in South Philly, but he would have been an upgrade over the veterans the Phillies plugged their rotation with — Drew Smyly and Jason Vargas — a month after they passed on Keuchel.
“He’s a Cy Young for a reason,” Bryce Harper said. “If you have an opportunity to go out and get a guy like that, I think all 29 teams should have that. But that’s how the game is right now and that’s how it goes. I thought Keuchel came out tonight and threw the ball really well.”
The Phillies were dominated Wednesday by the pitcher they declined to pursue, played in front of their smallest crowd of the season, dropped even with the Mets in the wild-card race, and lost one of their hottest hitters to a potentially significant injury.
Corey Dickerson limped off the field with a foot injury. X-rays were negative but Dickerson will have further testing on Thursday. He’s been one of the team’s hottest hitters and losing Dickerson will make reaching the playoffs a much steeper task.
The Phillies entered the game two games behind the Cubs for the National League’s second wild-card spot. The Phils are tied with the Mets and two games behind Milwaukee.
With just 17 games remaining, that margin will become much more difficult to overcome without Dickerson, who the Phillies said was removed with “left-foot soreness.” He entered Wednesday with a .906 OPS since being acquired from Pittsburgh at the trade deadline.
Keuchel struck out eight and allowed just one run on three hits in six innings. The Phillies stayed away from Keuchel, believing that they had a strong-enough rotation and that his lack of swings-and-misses would not lead to success in Philly. Adding Keuchel would have only cost money, not prospects, as he signed with the Braves for $13 million.
He generated 10 swinging strikes Wednesday night and the Phillies watched Zach Eflin throw 95 pitches before finishing the fourth inning.
“Had the sinker, kept the ball down, executed his change-up, got some swings and misses, got some ground balls," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said.
The Phillies, according to FanGraphs, began Wednesday with a 4.9-percent chance to reach the playoffs. They play the Braves on Thursday, face the Red Sox twice this weekend, and then go on an 11-game road trip to Atlanta, Cleveland, and Washington. The path to October will be a challenge.
The playoff odds are calculated using a formula that creates win probabilities, similar to the one that Kapler uses to guide his in-game managerial decisions. If the playoff race were a game, the odds would be telling Kapler that it’s time to send Roman Quinn to the mound.
“I think that's the beauty of being in this position. It doesn't matter what's being said. It doesn't matter what the odds say. I have the same responsibility,” Kapler said. “My responsibility is to put our team in a position to win every night's baseball game and believe that right now is what matters most. And luckily I genuinely believe that and believe it is the best way to be able to achieve success. It's not something to be said. It's the method I believe in most to get the best out of this club.”
Eflin lasted just 3⅔ innings and was lifted after throwing 95 pitches into the fourth inning. He retired 10 of his first 12 batters before Josh Donaldson reached on a throwing error by Jean Segura. Matt Joyce followed with a single and Eflin struck out Rafael Ortega, which would have ended the inning had Segura completed the throw to retire Donaldson.
Instead, the inning continued and Tyler Flowers belted an elevated four-seam fastball for a three-run homer. After Eflin walked the next batter, he gave up a single to Keuchel and his night was finished.
“That’s a play he makes 99 times out of 100," Kapler said of Segura’s error. “There was nothing in particular. Didn’t make an accurate throw and it led to a big inning.”
The elevated four-seamer is the pitch the Phillies guided Eflin to throw before he reverted last month to his two-seam sinker. He threw both pitches almost equally Wednesday night.
“Looking back at it, I wish I could have thrown something off-speed or maybe even a backdoor two-seamer, but I thought I executed the pitch, maybe could have gone a little further up,” Eflin said. “But at that point he had probably seen four or five of those pitches up, he was ready for it, veteran catcher and hitter that he is, he was ready for it.”
The Phillies had a chance against Keuchel in the fifth, when Phil Gosselin singled, Segura walked, and J.T. Realmuto was hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out. Harper came to the plate and the crowd made as much noise as 23,243 fans can.
A night earlier, the Phillies overcame their pitching by hitting five homers. Kapler said Wednesday that he believed his team could go on a run and reach the postseason. This — Harper up with the bases loaded — felt like a moment to trigger one.
But Harper hit a grounder up the middle and the Braves turned an inning-ending double play. The rally was over and another loss moved closer. An inning later, the Phillies’ playoff hopes would take a significant hit when Dickerson limped off.
“It’s frustrating, but you’re not going to get too high or too low,” Kapler said. “You’re not going to act like you won the World Series after you win a game and we’re not going get too distraught after we lose a game. We come back tomorrow to compete.”