When Phillies general manager Matt Klentak extended the contract of his manager last month, he lauded the patience Pete Mackanin had shown with struggling players in this season, and during his tenure here. No clubhouse fits, no prolonged benchings – the right man for the right job.
During his first spring training as a manager without the word "interim" attached at age 63, Mackanin had spoken at length about previous versions of himself as a young player and minor-league manager, how he had to learn that ruts, slumps and poor execution were less about insubordination or defiance than they were about inexperience and self-doubt.
"I’m from the old school,’’ he said that day two springs ago. "Billy Martin. Dick Williams. My first three years of managing, I yelled and screamed. That’s the way we did it. Then over the course of my career, I realized that old saying -- 'I’m not here to make friends; I’m here to win games' -- doesn’t fly anymore.
"I want the players' respect, but I’m also going to let them know, especially the guys who aren’t playing well or not doing well, that I still like them. That I’m pulling for them. That I’m not mad at them. But along with that goes accountability. By the way, you’ve got to get it done. Because this is a bottom-line business.’’
The bottom line is this: The Phillies lost Sunday for the 40th time in 61 games this season, and when you realize they were once 11-9, even their record doesn’t come close to describing the futility engulfing these guys and their fans right now. A team that Mackanin broke spring training with believing was on the cusp of being "good" is flirting with history now, the kind that gets your team first overall draft picks and its manager fired.
No one is more aware of this than the well-traveled Mackanin, an interim manager in two places before here who did not get the permanent gig in either place despite doing a commendable job. If Brett Brown’s calm amid an 82-game run of bad has been commendable, Mackanin’s mettle over 162 games of no-shot-in-hell has been nothing short of epic.
But lately, cracks seem to have developed along Mackanin’s wall of experience. A mistake pitch by starter Aaron Nola on Sunday, which led to Dexter Fowler’s three-run home run and flipped a rare lead into a 3-2 deficit, still stewed in the manager’s craw hours afterward.
"It’s a pitch I didn’t care for,’’ Mackanin said after the 6-5 loss to St. Louis, then went on to explain all the reasons.
"Any time you're in a hitter's count and you're going to come inside to a hitter who has some power, you're taking a big chance. To make a pitch on the inside part of the plate is really tough. You're taking a chance to walk him when you come inside because when you come inside, you have to make a perfect pitch. The percentage of making a perfect pitch is lower. If it's out over the plate, it gets hit like it did. If it's inside, it's a walk. So that's why I don't like the pitch.’’
There’s nothing unusual about Mackanin’s rationale. What’s a little unusual is that he said it so publicly, about a starting pitcher who, last year at this time, seemed a harbinger of the team’s rebirth.
Now, no one knows exactly what to think about Nola. Touted for his precise, Tom Glavine-like control when the Phillies took him with the seventh overall pick in 2014, Nola threw strikes on just 53 of his 92 pitches Sunday. One of them was the pitch that irked his manager.
Mackanin has yet to throw a full-blown hairy, and the hope is that Sunday’s comments had at least a piece of calculation to them. Reading them, though, I still couldn’t help thinking about that day in spring training two years ago when the new manager conjured up Martin and Williams, two fiery managers who sometimes took their players' performances a little too personally.
And who, Pete Mackanin said then, wouldn’t survive very long in this day and age.