ATLANTA — Another player filtered into Gabe Kapler’s office on Wednesday afternoon, shut the door behind him, and sat down to talk about the season.
The Phillies were three hours from beginning a 4-1 win over the Braves, but Kapler first wanted his players to “open up about their season.” Kapler, along with general manager Matt Klentak, is spending the final road trip of the season conducting exit interviews with every player on the roster.
They know the season is probably 11 days away from completion, ending in September instead of October. And the Phillies want to gather as much information as possible from a season that is charting as a disappointment. But first, Kapler opens the interviews with a reminder that the season is not yet finished.
“Those meetings start by reminding guys how close we are to doing something special,” said Kapler, whose team entered Wednesday with a less-than-1% chance to reach the playoffs. “They start with the understanding that every day is an opportunity to start that 9-out-of-10 stretch.”
The manager tells each player about how the Brewers won nine of 10 games this season, how the 2007 Phillies erased a seven-game deficit with 17 to play, and how his Red Sox rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the 2004 American League pennant.
The Phillies started Wednesday four-games behind the Cubs and Brewers for the National League’s second wild-card spot. If the Phillies are to reach October, they will need to overcome similar odds.
“These are the stories that we’re thinking about right now, to use as inspiration for what could happen,” Kapler said.
Those playoff dreams remained possible Wednesday, thanks to starter Zach Eflin, who did not allow an earned run in seven innings. Kapler said it “was the toughest-from-a-mental-standpoint start from a pitcher that we’ve gotten all season long.” The right-hander struck out four, walked two, and overcame a second-inning that started with two errors.
“I think that there were a lot of people who were inspired — myself and the coaching staff and many of the players in the dugout — by the start that Zach just made,” Kapler said.
In the sixth, Eflin gave up a one-out single to Nick Markakis, and a walk to Matt Joyce. The Phillies’ three-run lead no longer seemed so large. But Eflin was ready to show the mental toughness that Kapler lauded him for. He threw a first-pitch two-seamer to Brian McCann and induced an inning-ending double play. The rally was extinguished.
“It was a grind from pitch one, but at the end of our day, it’s our job as pitchers to pitch with our backs against the wall at all costs and go out fearless and attack hitters,” Eflin said. “I was just trying to do what I do every fifth day — get outs and stay in the game as much as possible.”
Maybe it was Kapler’s pregame inspiration that powered the Phillies to a second-straight win against the division-leading Braves, guaranteeing that Atlanta will not clinch the National League East until the Phillies leave town.
Or maybe it was Bryce Harper’s two-run homer, as he continued to punish Braves starter Julio Teheran. Harper has nine homers off the veteran right-hander, which is three more than he has against any other pitcher. A night after Kapler lauded Vince Velasquez and Hector Neris for their composure, Cesar Hernandez made an error that led to a run and then responded by hitting a homer in the sixth.
“I know it’s not the perfect formula all the time to strike out, walk, and hit home runs,” said Kapler, whose lineup drew three walks, struck out 12 times, and ripped two homers. "But, today, we won the game by walking and hitting some home runs. "
The Phillies came to Atlanta with their playoff chances deflated by two home losses to Boston. The Braves were ready to celebrate their second-straight division title. And the Phillies, just as they did last September, would be in the ballpark to witness it.
The Phillies did not fold. Their playoff chances are still slim. They still have 12 road games left on a three-city trip that will provide the ultimate test. They still need the Nationals, Brewers, and Cubs to stumble. But, at least they still have hope. They are already gathering information for next season. But, this season still has some time left.