LOS ANGELES - For eight innings, it was a wonderful night for the Phillies.
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Brock Stassi, the storybook kid, belted a three-run home run. Rookie Andrew Knapp had three hits, including his first big-league home run to give the Phils a three-run lead in the eighth inning, much to the delight of his family and friends whose cheers could be heard rising from deep within the sellout crowd of 53,110. Zach Eflin pitched superbly over seven-walk free innings and even the boys in the dugout had a little fun goofing on Tommy Joseph as he watched the game oblivious to the fact that he had a perfectly formed bubblegum sphere stuck to the top of his cap.
For the Phillies, there were plenty of reasons to be giddy.
And then the bubble burst, turning their happy little night into a crushing, oh-the-humanity, 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers (see Instant Replay).
"It's one of the worst losses I've ever been associated with, the way we lost," manager Pete Mackanin, looking shellshocked, said moments after it ended.
Trailing 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers tied the game in the blink of an eye when Yasiel Puig, Cody Bellinger and Justin Turner hit consecutive solo home runs off closer-but-don't-call-him-closer Hector Neris.
Puig's homer was a laser into the left-field seats, capping an eight-pitch at-bat. Bellinger's was a shot off the right-field foul pole that electrified the huge crowd. Turner's was a pinch-hit shot to left.
"Those weren't windblown home runs," Mackanin said. "They were bombs. It's tough to take. I'm not real happy with the outcome."
Mackanin removed Neris after a one-out single by Austin Barnes. Lefty Joely Rodriguez came in and got an out, then allowed a two-out single to Corey Seager, bringing No. 3 hitter Adrian Gonzalez to the plate.
With the crowd roaring and the count 1-1, Gonzalez fouled off four straight pitches before hitting a bouncing ball to the left of third baseman Maikel Franco. Franco moved to the ball, but it hit off the end of his glove and bounced wildly as Barnes raced home from second with the winning run.
Gonzalez was awarded an RBI infield hit. But it could have been scored an error.
"I thought [Franco] should have caught it," Mackanin said. "I think he should have [made the play]."
Franco said he could not dive for the ball because it was bouncing so much.
"I was running hard for the ball, but it hit off the tip of my glove," Franco said. "I tried to go out there and do my best on that play. But, you know, I can't get that. I did everything I can on that play."
Really, the game was lost when Neris could not hold the lead. Once the ball started flying out of the park and the crowd started going wild, there was no holding back the Dodgers. They went boom, boom, boom and it was only a matter of time before the Phillies hit the canvas.
In both the macro and micro sense, the Phillies have a problem in the ninth inning.
In the macro, they have blown four saves in the ninth inning, two resulting in painful walk-off losses. The team ERA in the ninth is an appalling 8.83. Neris is the third pitcher to be used as closer (even though Mackanin is reluctant to use the term) and the season isn't even a month old yet.
"I'd like to have a lights-out closer, but we don't have one right now," Mackanin said. "We'll continue to look at it."
In the micro, Neris is still probably best suited for the closer's job, but he needs to make some fixes. Two of the three homers he gave up came on fastballs. Mackanin wants to see more splitters. That pitch helped Neris strike out over 11 batters per nine innings last season.
"One thing about Neris is for some reason he's getting away from his split," Mackanin said. "He wants to throw more fastballs and that's not going to work.
"I think Neris is capable of being a closer, but for some reason he's just not throwing his split as often as he did and that's his out pitch, the pitch that makes him who he is, who he was, and he's gotten away from it and throwing more fastballs. We'll have a talk with him and get it straightened out."
Neris said pitch selection wasn't his problem in the ninth inning.
"It wasn't because they were fastballs," he said. "It was the location.
"It was just a bad day. Everyone has one."
But this bad?
"What a way to lose," Mackanin groaned. "A real letdown."