ATLANTA — The Phillies spent $34 million in one day last December to sign both Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek, believing the two veterans would bolster their bullpen. But both free-agent prizes were sidelined with injuries Thursday when the Phillies opened their season.
Neshek told manager Gabe Kapler before the game that he was unavailable because of a minor issue with a muscle in the right side of his back, Kapler said. The Phillies do not know how long they will be without Neshek. Hunter injured his hamstring in the final week of spring training and opened the season on the disabled list.
The Phillies missed Neshek as the bullpen blew a five-run lead. They were instead forced to use Edubray Ramos in the eighth inning and he could not get the job done.
"My job, my main intention is to keep our guys healthy and strong for 162 games," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I want to protect Pat. I have a tremendous level of respect for him. I think he's going to be a contributor to this ballclub that's incredibly meaningful over a long period of time and therefore my job and my goal was to ensure that he was safe and strong."
Kapler met with Odubel Herrera on Wednesday afternoon, a day before the Phillies manager would leave Herrera out of Thursday's opening-day lineup.
Herrera had started in center field for the previous three season openers. But Kapler, basing his decision on previous matchups and defensive tendencies, chose to start his first season as manager with Herrera on the bench. And Herrera was upset.
"Of course, I am," he said.
Herrera entered Thursday with five hits in 27 career at-bats against Braves righthander Julio Teheran. Kapler said he would rather have Herrera in center field when a fly-ball pitcher was on the mound for the Phillies and not Aaron Nola, who tends to record ground-ball outs. Herrera has been the team's best hitter for the past three seasons, and Kapler said he understands why he was miffed to be out of the lineup.
"I want our guys to want to be in the lineup every day. I want them to have that fire in their belly to compete every single day," Kapler said. "And I thought the coolest thing was when I talked to Odubel, he said, 'I'm upset. I want to play." And I said, "Awesome. That's exactly what we want you to feel.' We can't make decisions because somebody might be upset, because the truth of the matter is, when these guys see how this all plays out and at the end of the season when they're all getting their reps and they've seen that over a long period of time, there's going to be a whole more comfort there."
Herrera was replaced in center field by Aaron Altherr and Nick Williams started in right. He was brought in as a defensive sub for Hoskins in the bottom of the eighth, shifting Altherr to right field and Williams to left.
Herrera likely will start Friday in the season's second game. The Phillies have six players who can play the outfield and finding playing time, Kapler said, is a challenge. He has lineups already written for the next week. He told Herrera that he will "play a lot over the next couple of days, and this is just one baseball game."
"I don't expect that to take away the sting of not being out there on opening day. I understand what that felt like. I understand what that feels like. I'm very empathetic to his position," Kapler said. "However, it was a conversation that had to happen. We are going to communicate preemptively. We're not going to let lineups catch our players off guard."