WASHINGTON - It seems like just yesterday that the Phillies were trading for the best catcher in baseball and having a sun-splashed news conference in Clearwater to announce the signing of an iconic free agent, just yesterday that fans were lining up at the ticket window to be part of the excitement, just yesterday that everyone was so sure that 2019 was the year the Phillies would get back to the postseason.
Maybe next year.
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The Phillies ensured themselves another baseball-free October when they suffered a 4-1 loss to the Washington Nationals in the first game of a doubleheader on Tuesday afternoon (see observations). That's eight years in a row that Citizens Bank Park will go dark after the Phillies play their final game of the season Sunday afternoon against the Miami Marlins.
Tuesday afternoon's loss ended the Phillies' faint National League wild-card hopes. They have lost five of six games and three in a row, and the combined score of those three losses - 21-4 - speaks loudly of a dead team playing out the string.
The Phils send Aaron Nola to the mound Tuesday night for the second game of the doubleheader. The Phils are winless in his last six starts. At 79-77, they need to win three of their remaining six games to have their first winning season since 2011. Back on May 29, when the Phils were 11 games over .500 and 3½ games up in the NL East, a winning season seemed like a minimal expectation for the club. Now, it's all the Phils have left - and getting it won't be easy.
"We're going to have plenty of time to reflect on the fact that we didn't get to the postseason, which was the goal and the only thing that we thought about all season long," manager Gabe Kapler said after Tuesday afternoon's loss. "And we will get to that moment of reflection. We've felt some sting already. I think we'll continue to feel some sting. But we have a game to get ready for right now and that's important. For me, try to win every baseball game. There's a lot of pride at stake."
Kapler is finishing up his second season as Phillies manager. His team suffered a historic collapse down the stretch last season and missed the playoffs. This season, despite acquiring All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto right before spring training, and signing Bryce Harper to a $330 million contract during spring training, the Phils suffered a midseason collapse, going from 3½ games up in the NL East to 6½ games back in a little over three weeks, then sputtered their way out of contention.
"Obviously, it's disappointing," Rhys Hoskins said. "You set out at the beginning of the year, the beginning of the offseason, spring training, whatever it may be, with the goal in mind, right? Obviously, we've come up short this year."
Hoskins has struggled mightily at the plate in the second half of the season. He went 0 for 3 with a walk Tuesday afternoon. He is hitless in his last 25 at-bats and his batting average is down to .229. He is hitting .182 since the All-Star break. Hoskins was not in the starting lineup for Tuesday's nightcap. Neither was Harper or Realmuto, who has a sore right knee.
As much as the Phillies missed a productive Hoskins in the second half of the season, he was far from the only reason the Phils came up short in the quest to make the postseason. The team endured some big injuries, especially to leadoff man Andrew McCutchen and a number of relievers, there was plenty of underperformance by the pitchers and players who stayed healthy, and the front office did not save the pitching staff by acquiring for a difference-making starter at the trade deadline.
"I think it's a lot of things, honestly," Hoskins said on what went wrong. "We haven't been as consistent as a team as you would have hoped throughout the year. We pitched well throughout the year and we hit throughout the year but it never seemed to sync up for a long period of time. I guess that's what I would pin it on."
As the Phillies play out the final week, Kapler's future remains an issue.
Will he be back for a third season?
Last week, general manager Matt Klentak praised the work that Kapler had done. But owner John Middleton, who is in Washington watching this series, is the difference-making bat in the hierarchy of Phillies' off-field leadership. He spent over $400 million this winter and is not happy that his team will head home when the season ends Sunday. There has already been change on the coaching staff (hitting coach John Mallee was let go in August) and more changes will likely come. Middleton could also push for a change in the manager's office.
Kapler was asked about how he believed missing the postseason would affect his future.
"We have games left to play," Kapler said. "Like I said, there's going to be plenty of opportunity to reflect. I love this organization. I love this team specifically. I love working for this front office. I love working for this ownership group. And look, I'm going to manage this club as long as I can. Because I think I give us a great chance to win and I think because I care deeply about the success of this franchise."
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