This will be difficult to fathom for anyone who watched the Phillies melt like fondue in each of the last two Septembers. But what happened Tuesday in a doubleheader in Washington was as bad as it gets for a team that fancies itself a postseason contender.
Get ready — maybe even avert your eyes — because this was ugly.
By day, with Aaron Nola on the mound, after getting called out for their sloppy play by manager Joe Girardi less than 24 hours earlier, the Phillies laid an egg in a 5-1 loss to the Nationals. They mustered six hits against a pitcher who entered with a 7.17 ERA and made two errors, Bryce Harper kicking a ball around the right-field corner like he spent the last decade playing for D.C. United.
By night, they at least showed grit, tying the game in the sixth inning when J.T. Realmuto, his injured hip “throbbing,” as he said, beat out a bases-loaded infield single. They even took a lead in the eighth inning. But Brandon Workman gave up a two-run home run to 33-year-old Cuban rookie Yadiel Hernandez in an 8-7 walk-off crusher.
Told you it was ugly.
In getting swept, and stretching their losing streak to four games, the Phillies dropped to 27-29 and out of the eight-team playoff field in the National League. The Milwaukee Brewers moved one game ahead of them; the Gabe Kapler-led San Francisco Giants had the chance to do the same pending the outcome of their game.
“It definitely feels like a bad dream,” said Realmuto, who returned after an 11-game absence with a left hip flexor strain and played both games. “The bottom line is we have to play better and we have to play better in a hurry. We’re still in it. We’re not eliminated yet. We still have a chance to make the playoffs. We just have to play better baseball, all-around. We’re running out of time a little bit, but mathematically it’s possible. We’ve just got to play better.”
Said Girardi: “We’ve kind of dug ourselves a hole, and we’ve done that before and we’ve been able to fight out of it. We’ve got to fight out of it starting tomorrow. Now we have to rely on other people and we have to win games.”
It really shouldn’t have been this hard. Not with a nearly $208 million payroll and a playoff field that has expanded to eight teams per league.
But all of the Phillies' issues were on display Tuesday. They made two errors in the first game, one of which was committed by 22-year-old rookie left fielder Mickey Moniak in his fourth major-league start. Harper, playing with a lower back injury, went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts, left four men on base, and made two questionable plays in the field.
And the bullpen cost them yet again.
Like a heavyweight who had just gotten knocked out, Workman appeared stunned after giving up Hernandez’s homer. Acquired in an Aug. 21 trade to fortify the back end of the worst bullpen in baseball, Workman has been a train wreck, allowing 23 hits, including four home runs, in 13 innings, and posting a 7.62 ERA.
Workman entered in the bottom of the eighth inning after the Phillies scored the go-ahead run when Nationals third baseman Brock Holt threw away Roman Quinn’s sacrifice bunt. After falling behind in a 2-1 count, he threw a cutter up and in that Hernandez muscled out to right field for his first career homer.
“Obviously, this isn’t what I was looking for when I came over here. It wasn’t what the team was looking for,” Workman said. “I don’t know. This wasn’t what the plan was.”
If the second game was devastating, the first was damaging.
Every loss counts equally, but losing a Nola start — after falling with Zack Wheeler on the mound Monday night — felt more consequential. The Phillies are 5-6 in Nola’s starts, 6-4 in Wheeler’s, not nearly good enough considering Nola’s 3.06 ERA and Wheeler’s 2.67 mark.
Nola didn’t pitch particularly well. He gave up three doubles in the Nationals' four-run third inning and allowed five runs overall in a second consecutive start for the first time since his final two starts of last season. This time, though, only three of the runs were earned.
“It don’t matter who’s on the mound. We’ve still got to go out and compete,” Nola said. “I feel like we’ve been competing. Things haven’t been falling our way. I don’t think we’re out of anything.”
The Phillies are 12-14 in September after going 12-16 in the final month last season and 8-20 in 2018. Each year is different. The previous collapses occurred on Kapler’s watch. This year’s struggles have coincided with a deluge of injuries and an unforgiving schedule. Tuesday marked the team’s fifth doubleheader in 15 days.
But it sure looks like the same old Phillies late in the season.
“We’re not pressing,” Nola said.
Said Workman: “At the end of the day, if we miss the playoffs, nobody cares [about injuries or a grueling schedule]. We’ve got to get the job done, and personally, I have to do my job light-years better than what I’m doing it right now.”