Phillies' Gabe Kapler has gone from punching bag to manager of the year candidate

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First-year Phillies manager Gabe Kapler (left) has learned from a few missteps in the first week of the season. At the All-Star break, he’s on the short list of NL Manager of the Year candidates.

Gabe Kapler was too busy steering the Phillies through the late innings of another close game Wednesday to know off the top of his head when the team’s record had last risen to 10 games above .500 at any point in a season.

“But I’d love to hear about it,” he said.

Kapler doesn’t mind a good history lesson. It helps him put things into context. It’s also a way to learn how to do his job most effectively.

As a first-year manager, Kapler doesn’t have much history upon which to draw. But he’s clearly using his experiences from the last three months to inform his decisions. And of all the reasons that the Phillies, at 47-37, are 10 games over .500 for the first time since September 2011 — a string of ace-caliber starts from Aaron Nola, a knack for grinding at-bats, the maturation of the majors’ youngest roster — Kapler’s influence and leadership loom as large as any.

“If we just look at this past weekend’s games against the Nationals, we don’t win those games without our bullpen coming through, we don’t win those games without some big hits in some key at-bats, we don’t win [Sunday’s] game without Andrew Knapp’s home run,” general manager Matt Klentak said. “But I also don’t think we win those games without Gabe Kapler as our manager. He was a real difference-maker in those games.”

Indeed, Kapler has pushed so many of the right proverbial buttons lately that it’s almost difficult to recall his many early-season missteps. On opening day, he sat centerfielder Odubel Herrera based on a pitching matchup and yanked Nola after 68 pitches. He went to his bullpen 26 times in the first five games, including once for a reliever who had not yet warmed up, a blunder that earned him a reprimand from the commissioner’s office. He got booed before the home opener at Citizens Bank Park.

But 10 days shy of the all-star break, Kapler is on the short list of candidates for National League manager of the year.

“He is bold. It’s his word. He walks the walk,” Klentak said, referring to  Kapler’s “Be Bold” mantra in spring training. “But he puts our players in the best positions for them to succeed. I think he’s been doing that all for much of the first half.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Gabe Kapler talking to Scott Kingery (left) during a game last month.

Kapler hasn’t strayed from thinking outside the box. He’d rather not have a bullpen with clearly defined roles, and he continues to use rookie Scott Kingery at shortstop even though he’s a natural second baseman. But while Kapler remains unconventional, he also has been willing to adapt based on what he sees and hears from his players.

Take Wednesday, for example. Kapler stuck with Nola to face Orioles star Manny Machado with two out in the seventh inning and the tying and go-ahead runs on base even though the ace had thrown 100 pitches. It was the right move, of course, but not one he would have made earlier in the season.

“We’ve gotten to know Nola better and better, and it seems he’s at his best late in games,” Kapler said. “I knew about the pitches — the change-up, the curveball, the heater. What I didn’t know was how cool and calm he is at all times.”

Sunday, Kapler lifted starting pitcher Jake Arrieta for a pinch-hitter in the fifth inning even though the bullpen had worked 14 1/3 innings over the previous two games. It worked. The Phillies rallied for three runs to tie the game, then wrung every last out from the bullpen for eight scoreless innings before Knapp homered in the 13th.

“It’s a tough decision to make there,” Arrieta said. “But we needed to try to get some runs, scratch some hits together, and it ended up working out for us.”

The Phillies’ youth — the average age of the roster is 26.5 — has helped Kapler to get a maximum buy-in from the players. But he also has communicated well with them. In private, he keeps them apprised of how he will use them and what he expects. In public, he’s unfailingly upbeat, accentuating their positives even after decidedly negative performances or outcomes.

And when there has been pushback, Kapler has tackled it head-on. During that tumultuous first week, he invited veteran reliever Pat Neshek to his hotel room in New York to discuss the bullpen usage. When Arrieta criticized the Phillies’ defensive shifts after a start in late May, Kapler met with him and conceded that he would include him more in decisions about positioning.

“Gabe has always been who he is,” slugger Rhys Hoskins said recently. “His big thing is communication. He takes pride in not catching any of us off guard, so none of the things that have gone on, that he’s done, that he’s presented to us have been a surprise, which is outstanding. It’s awesome to have.”

It’s also the reason the home-opener boos have long since faded.

Kapler for manager of the year? It’s not so ridiculous anymore.

Extra bases

The Phillies traded double-A lefthander Elniery Garcia to the Cardinals for additional international bonus pool money. Garcia, 23, had a 6.38 ERA in 10 games (nine starts) with Reading. … Righthander Nick Pivetta will start the series opener Friday night in Pittsburgh.