ATLANTA — We love to do it and Gabe Kapler is likely to give us more opportunity than any other manager in Phillies history to exercise our inalienable right to act as armchair managers and perpetual first and second-guessers. In case you had not heard, he does things a little bit different and in his managerial debut it was not a good different.
Before his first team had played an inning Thursday against the Atlanta Braves at SunTrust Park, he already had us scratching our heads and a player upset with him. Was it really a wise move to keep the man who has been the team’s best position player over the last three seasons out of the starting lineup on opening day? Kapler had his reasons for sitting Odubel Herrera, a left-handed hitter against righthander Julio Teheran and he was more than willing to share them before the game. He insisted it was not all about Herrera’s 5-for-27 matchup statistics against the Atlanta ace.
“It’s a sample size and it’s worth looking at, but it’s not the only thing we’re taking into consideration,” the manager said a couple hours before his major-league debut. “We’re not just making decisions based on matchups. We’re taking into account how guys are feeling right now (and) how we expect them to be feeling after week one.”
The manager said he was thinking about Friday’s lineup and Saturday’s lineup and the three games next week in New York. He said he felt good about Nick Williams, the left-handed hitter that started instead of Herrera, against Teheran. They even thought about Aaron Nola’s pitching style.
“Nola is a ground ball pitcher so we thought maybe we really want Odubel running around out there when the fly ball pitchers come,” Kapler said.
Williams went 0-for-4 and struck out twice out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order, but that was barely a footnote following the Phillies’ fall-from-far-ahead 8-5 loss to the Braves that ended with Nick Markakis sending a three-run home run into the right-field seats in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Nobody wanted to know anymore why Herrera was not in at the start of the game. The primary question had become why did the starter Nola have to come out with the Phillies up 5-0 and one man on and one out in the bottom of the sixth inning? The inquiries after difficult-to-digest losses are not nearly as pleasant to handle as they are before a game, but Kapler gave it his best shot.
“We believe in all of our pitchers,” the manager said. “I believe in Hoby Milner’s ability to come in and get (Freddie) Freeman and (Nick) Markakis out.”
That belief had to be based mostly if not entirely on the numbers. Freeman was hitless in five career at-bats with two strikeouts against Milner and Markakis was 1-for-5 with one strikeout. But this seemed like a good time for the eye test to rule over the analytics. Nola was in control of the game. He had allowed three hits, walked one batter and had only thrown 68 pitches, four more than in his final spring-training start when Kapler compared him to a young Zack Greinke.
“You know third time around the order has always been tough,” catcher Andrew Knapp said when asked if he thought Nola was tiring. “We all know that Gabe is very into analytics and we have trust in our bullpen to get the job done. I think after the double from (Ender) Inciarte we thought it was time.”
Except that’s not what happened. Kapler let Nola face switch-hitter Ozzie Albies, who was quickly retired on a fly ball to right field. With Freeman due up, Kapler immediately emerged from the dugout. Nola’s outing was over and he admitted it surprised him.
“Yeah, a little bit,” the pitcher said. “A little bit. I just elevated the second pitch of that inning a little (to Inciarte), then I got Albies out pretty quick right after that, so I was a little surprised.”
Perhaps he shouldn’t have been given the rumblings about how things would be different under Kapler this season. But it still had to sting when the mushroom cloud engulfed what looked like a really good chance at a Phillies opening-day win before Nola’s departure.
Nola said he did not ask Kapler why he was being removed and he did not try to fight his manager. He made it clear that he “had a good bit left” in the tank when he exited and was forced to watch Milner surrender a two-run home to Freeman that awoke the sellout crowd at SunTrust Park.
“You just want to go as long as you can,” Nola said. “When you’re a competitor you feel like you can get guys out in any situation in any part of the game. It was a tough loss for the team. I mean guys aren’t giving up runs on purpose.”
But the bullpen, which was a man short because Pat Neshek was unavailable, did give up seven runs, including three in the ninth when closer Hector Neris surrendered a two-out walkoff home run to Markakis after issuing an intentional walk to Freeman. For the matchup record, Freeman was 1-for-9 against Neris and Markakis was 7-for-14. Now he’s 8-15 and the Phillies are 0-1 under Kapler.
No regrets the manager said.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that I understand this is a long season and that we are looking for Aaron Nola to take down a ton of innings,” Kapler said. “I felt confident, very confident and I remain very confident that we could win this game with having Hoby come in and get those two hitters out. And I would continue to bet on the arms in our bullpen to help us win games like that many more times.”
Perhaps, but it was still one sad way to lose on opening day and you would not be wrong if you wanted to pin the majority of blame on the manager. It is, after all, your inalienable right to do so.