ATLANTA – Gabe Kapler showed up for the second game of his major-league managerial career without remorse. He admitted that the Phillies’ season-opening loss to the Atlanta Braves stung through the night, but he still believed in his analytically driven decisions and his “dudes” out in the bullpen.
The Phillies needed almost all of those “dudes” Friday night to rebound for a 5-4, 11-inning victory over the Braves at SunTrust Park. Eight of Kapler’s relievers, including one who started the day at the team’s minor-league camp in Clearwater, Fla., combined to allow just one run on four hits over seven innings as the rookie manager earned his first career win.
“It was pretty exhilarating,” Kapler said. “It was really a shared victory. There was a lot of contributions and a tremendous performance by our bullpen. We’ve discussed this and continue to say it, it’s the strength of our club. It’s a major strength of our club and we’re going to continue to lean on those guys.”
Kapler used 20 of his 25 players to get his first big-league win, which was much needed even at this early stage after such a disturbing loss in the opener.
How this is going to work for Kapler and the Phillies in the long run remains to be seen, especially now that the two biggest offseason bullpen additions — Tommy Hunter and Pat Neshek — have landed on the disabled list before appearing in a game.
“I’m well aware we can’t use everybody every night,” Kapler said. “But I can also tell you that we will be creative and we will be flexible and we will find ways to use our bullpen that will be protective.”
Rest assured, Kapler is going to continue to manage with a heavy influence from the analytics department. The first big-league manager in baseball history with six-pack abs sees no reason to go with his gut when there is so much more relevant information in front of him.
“We’re not going to get caught up in the emotion of when you make really good decisions and work a really strong process and don’t have a good outcome because that’s coming, too, and we expect that to come,” Kapler said.
The vocal majority would argue that it was a bad decision by the manager based on analytics that led to the opening-day loss to Atlanta. Kapler offered his reasons for removing Aaron Nola from a game he was leading 5-0 with one out and one on in the fifth inning. He said he recited them all to Nola before Friday’s game against the Braves at SunTrust Park.
“[Nola] and I had a great discussion [Friday] and I said, ‘Look, I have every confidence that you could have gone another inning and you could have been really good,” Kapler said. “My decision to remove you from that game was not about any lack of confidence in you.”
The manager was being absolutely sincere. The numbers said bringing in lefty Hoby Milner to face Freddie Freeman was a better idea than sticking with Nola even though the vocal majority saw a starting pitcher with 68 pitches in control of the game.
“[Milner] didn’t give up a home run against a lefthanded batter last year,” Kapler said. “He limited all sorts of damage last year. I believe he was the right matchup for those two guys.”
He was wrong on opening day, but it was OK in his mind because it was for the right reason. He assured Milner that if a similar situation arose Friday the 27-year-old lefty would get another call to the mound. Milner appreciated it.
“He told me explicitly if I need you against those two guys again, you got it,” Milner said. “I appreciate the faith he has in us and I agree with the decisions he made [Thursday]. He made good decisions and they just didn’t pan out. We gave up the home runs in situations that you can’t give up home runs. It’s baseball. Baseball happened yesterday.”
Milner got another shot Friday, although the circumstances were not identical. He came on as the Phillies’ second reliever of the night with two outs and the game tied 3-3 in the bottom of the fifth and walked Freeman before getting cleanup hitter Nick Markakis, another lefthanded hitter, to fly out for the final out of the inning.
And then the bullpen parade started. Edubray Ramos got one out. Adam Morgan got three. Yacksel Rios, called out of Clearwater to replace Neshek, got two outs. Luis Garcia coughed up a lead by allowing a run in the eighth before Hector Neris worked a scoreless ninth, redemption for his meltdown in the opener. Drew Hutchison, who made the club as a non-roster invitee, earned the win with two scoreless innings.
It did not entirely erase the decision to remove Nola on Thursday, but Kapler arrived ready for work Friday. He insisted that Neshek’s shoulder injury was not devastating.
“We have a lot of dudes out there,” Kapler said. “We maintained from the beginning that our major strength was our bullpen, and if we are down a man or down even two, we have a lot of guys that can pick up their various spots in the opposition’s lineup. So we have a high degree of confidence that we have the guys in the bullpen right now that can get big outs for us.”
The “dudes” did that Friday night and it helped their rookie manager turn the painful page from the season-opening loss.