WASHINGTON – The Phillies' postseason hopes may have ended on Tuesday, but there is still intrigue in these final days of the season.
The Phillies have not had a winning season since 2011 and their chances of having one now are in serious peril after they staggered to their fifth straight loss on Wednesday night.
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One day after sweeping the Phillies in a doubleheader and wrapping up a National League wild-card playoff spot, the Washington Nationals rallied to beat the Phils, 5-2. The loss dropped them to .500 for the first time this season at 79-79.
That's right, after being above .500 all season - including 11 games over and 3 ½ games up in the NL East entering play on May 30 - the Phillies find themselves at the break-even point with just four games to play.
In other words, they need to win three of their last four games to finish with a winning record. That might seem trivial because you play for championships not simply winning records, but another losing season, in a year that started with so much hope and excitement, could hasten changes in the front office or manager's chair.
The Phillies have lost seven of their last eight and nine of their last 12. That's not a good look - especially with owner John Middleton taking a recent up-close look. He has been in attendance with front officials for the first four games of this series in Washington.
The Phillies have one more game to play in this series against the Nationals. Lefty Jason Vargas will go for his 100th career win against Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg on Thursday. Beating Strasburg will not be easy. The Nats are still playing with motivation as they look to sew up home-field advantage for the wild-card game next week. And Strasburg has more often than not been death on the Phillies. He is 13-2 with a 2.62 ERA in 26 career starts against the Phils. He's 17-6 with a 3.37 ERA this season. Those 17 wins are tied for the most in the NL.
The Phillies got a nice start from lefty Drew Smyly - 6 1/3 innings, two runs, no walks and 10 strikeouts.
The Nats rallied for two in the runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth against the Phillies' bullpen to take a 5-2 lead. Defense did not help the Phils. Yan Gomes smashed a double by Rhys Hoskins (tough play, but not impossible) to fuel the Nats' two-run seventh and Cesar Hernandez made a costly error in the two-run eighth.
Despite falling out of the playoff race the day before, manager Gabe Kapler said before the game that it was important to finish strong.
His team is not doing that.
Can it rally over the final four games and get that winning season?
Will it even matter for Kapler's future?
"Absolutely, there's a desire to have a winning season," Kapler said. "It's important to me. It's important to this ball club. We're going to keep doing everything in our power to make that happen by preparing hard, by grinding every day."
After finishing the series in Washington on Thursday afternoon, the Phillies finish with three games at home against the lowly Miami Marlins. Every team in the NL East has dominated the Marlins – except the Phillies. They are 7-9 against Miami.
Yes, the Phillies are out contention. Yes, they are stumbling to the finish line.
It's not pretty.
But it's still important. Evaluations are being made. Who stays? Who goes?
"I really love managing this club," Kapler said before the game. "I love working for the people that I work for. That includes our general manager, it includes our ownership group, it includes our entire front office. And I'm not just working for them. I'm working for our player-development staff and our amateur scouting department. I work for everybody in this organization. Love that responsibility. I take it very seriously. Every single day I give every ounce of my energy to that responsibility and will continue to do that as long as I have this privilege.
"There's going to be time to reflect on my future when we get to the end of the season. Right now, my job is to continue to stay focused on managing the major-league club and devoting myself to the organization. I'm going to continue to do that through the end."
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