TORONTO - It seems as if the Phillies have suffered their worst loss of the season about a half-dozen times in the last few weeks, but this might have really been it.
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Nick Pivetta had trouble protecting leads and the usually reliable, rookie bullpen duo of Seranthony Dominguez and Victor Arano continued to show cracks as the intensity of a pennant race ramps up. It was all part of a rough day Saturday as the Phillies were tagged for five runs in the seventh and eighth innings en route to blowing a five-run lead to the Toronto Blue Jays. The Phils, losers of 12 of their last 18, limped out of Rogers Centre with a painful 8-6 defeat (see first take) that added fuel to the growing belief that, hey, it has been an unexpectedly fun ride, but this is just not a playoff team.
How do you stop this?
"I think we have to maintain the same poise we have through rough stretches all season," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I think we've had stretches similar to this one. This one has been undoubtedly difficult, but we remind our guys how tough and how resilient we are and that good teams have rough stretches. By no means does this mean we don't have the ability to win the National League East. We're still in good position to strike."
There are just 33 games left.
It's not the time to be losing six of seven, but that's where the Phillies are.
"This one might be a little more challenging because it takes more energy to be resilient when you're close to the end," Kapler said. "So it just means that we're going to need to dig really deep to get that last drop of energy and I believe we have it in us."
The loss put the Phillies in jeopardy of falling four games back in the NL East, pending the outcome of the Atlanta-Miami game.
Earlier in the week, the Phillies blew a pair of 4-1 leads in Washington. They lost both of those games, one on a two-run homer by Ryan Zimmerman against Dominguez in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Dominguez took the loss again in this one. He took a one-run lead to the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning and the moment seemed to get a little big for him. He allowed a leadoff single then with one out walked a batter and hit another to load the bases. Kapler went to Arano in a tough spot and the right-hander registered a strikeout for the second out before surrendering a booming, three-run double to center to Aledmys Diaz to give the Jays a two-run lead.
Dominguez and Arano have been a big part of the Phillies' success and the club needs them more than ever now. But as the games have gotten more intense recently, both have sputtered. Arano has been tagged for a solo homer, a two-run homer and a three-run double in his last two outings. Dominguez has allowed 10 runs in seven innings over his last eight outings.
"This is a lot for a young pitcher who is still developing," Kapler said of Dominguez. "We have a ton of confidence in him. That hasn't wavered at all. We're just looking for him to get that confidence back in himself."
Dominguez had actually entered the game in a big situation in the seventh inning and struck out Justin Smoak with the potential tying run on base. It was a one-run game at that point because Pivetta allowed a leadoff double and then got two strikeouts before serving up a first-pitch, two-run homer to rookie Billy McKinney, his second in as many nights against the Phillies.
Catcher Jorge Alfaro was looking for a down-and-away fastball and Pivetta threw it over the heart of the plate, 97 mph.
Kapler let the right-hander Pivetta face the lefty-hitting McKinney even as lefty Luis Avilan, acquired earlier in the week for just these types of situations, was ready in the bullpen.
Kapler said he struck with Pivetta because he believed Toronto manager John Gibbons would sent right-handed-hitting Randal Grichuk to the plate as a pinch-hitter. After the game, Gibbons confirmed that he would have done that. Kapler could have forced Gibbons to burn a bench player and had Avilan take his chances on the .228-hitting Grichuk, but he stuck with Pivetta and the matchup on McKinney, who had struck out twice and grounded out in three previous at-bats against Pivetta.
"Grichuk looming is probably the first and most important reason," Kapler said. "And, in large part due to the fact that Pivetta had retired him twice on strikeouts and induced another ground out and because he had looked good in that inning despite the leadoff double, we had a lot of confidence in him. We felt he could go at the hitter and we gave him the opportunity to do so and it didn't work out. He gave up a two-run homer."
Pivetta gave up a pair of two-run homers on the day - one after a leadoff walk in the bottom of the fourth, moments after the Phils had gone up, 5-0 - and five runs in all over 6 2/3 innings.
He did not exactly handle a sizable lead with care.
And that has put the Phillies in trouble.