Gabe Kapler couldn’t recall the exact moment. It might have been after Jorge Alfaro singled up the middle. Or maybe it wasn’t until Pedro Florimon scorched a double. But at one point in the ninth inning Friday night, the Phillies manager leaned over to bench coach Rob Thomson and made a prediction.
“If Rhys comes to the plate,” Kapler said, “we’re going to win this game.”
Sure enough, Rhys Hoskins did come to the plate — with the bases loaded and one out, no less. But the Phillies did not win. Instead, Hoskins stared at a borderline 2-2 pitch for a called third strike, Odubel Herrera hit a bouncer to second base, and the Toronto Blue Jays white-knuckled their way to a series-opening 6-5 victory before an announced crowd of 21,374 at Citizens Bank Park.
So, first place will have to wait. But what’s another day or two when you have waited seven years? The division-leading Atlanta Braves did their part, falling to the Boston Red Sox. But the Phillies, who haven’t held sole possession of first place since the end of the 2011 season, remained a half-game off the pace in the National League East because of a pitch that neither Hoskins nor Kapler could stomach re-watching on video.
“I don’t know if that’s the best use of my time right now,” Kapler said. “I know it’s not going to make me feel good.”
Said Hoskins: “No, I haven’t [looked]. They called it a strike.”
Hoskins was pretty sure the pitch — a 96-mph heater from Blue Jays substitute closer Ryan Tepera — was off the plate. But longtime umpire Joe West apparently thought it clipped the outside corner and rung up Hoskins, who glanced over his shoulder and disapprovingly shook his head as he trudged to the dugout.
Regardless, Hoskins conceded the larger truth.
“It’s too close to take in that situation,” he said. “It’s unacceptable. You’ve got to put the ball in play and give yourself a chance.”
Little by little, Hoskins has been doing that lately. Mired in the worst slump of his career — a 12-for-85 slog that has dragged on for more than three weeks — he has been taking better at-bats for the past several games.
In the fourth inning Friday night, Hoskins worked a walk. In the eighth inning, he jumped on a change-up — an off-speed pitch that has been giving him trouble — and stroked an RBI double to left field.
“If you go back four or five games, Rhys has been swinging the bat pretty good,” Kapler said. “I’m not talking about a lot of hits. I’m talking about swings with bat speed, I’m talking about attacking the baseball, I’m talking about getting the ball in the air. There have been some very good things happening for Rhys. He’s very close to taking off for us.”
None of that was much consolation, though, after the disappointment of a ninth-inning comeback that fizzed.
For so much of this month, the Phillies have gotten lockdown starting pitching. In 14 games, in fact, their starters have allowed no more than one run. That wasn’t the case against the Jays, as No. 5 starter Zach Eflin gave up three runs in the first inning and three more in the fifth, allowing the Jays to feel comfortable with their lead until that final inning.
“I was just trying to get a pitch to hit, just trying to simplify it as much as I can,” Hoskins said. “When you have a pitcher on the ropes like that, I think that’s the best way to go about it. And he made a good pitch. Like I said, unacceptable [not to swing] in that situation.”