Just when you think you've witnessed the Phillies' worst loss of the season, a defeat so sudden that things couldn't possibly get more demoralizing, they manage to one-up it. But even in a season filled with such crushing losses — gut punches, as manager Gabe Kapler often calls them — Tuesday night's 5-4 setback against the Nationals might just be the topper.
Not only did the Phillies waste Aaron Nola's latest gem (more on him later), but they also committed two more costly errors that led to runs, fumbled a one-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, and made the final out of the game at third base on an appeal play after a pinch-running pitcher tagged up too soon.
"I know you always say, 'This is the worst one,' every night, but I think everybody said that at the time that this is the worst," said reliever Pat Neshek, who gave up the go-ahead two-run homer to Anthony Rendon. "Which one is really the worst when you have 12 of them?"
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At this rate, Aaron Nola might wind up having one of the three best seasons ever by a Phillies pitcher in the last 100 years and not winning the Cy Young Award.
Never mind that Nola outdueled Nationals ace Max Scherzer — the two-time reigning Cy winner — for the second time in less than a week Tuesday night. Or that the 25-year-old righthander has allowed no more than two runs in 22 of his 27 starts. Or that the Phillies are 19-8 in his starts, including 9-3 when they lost the previous game. Or that he has given up four home runs in 88 innings at homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
And let this sink in for a moment: Nola's 2.10 ERA is the lowest by a Phillies starting pitcher this late in a season since Chris Short in 1964. Most of Nola's numbers — including his ERA, WHIP (0.97) and opponents' slugging percentage (.281) — are better than Roy Halladay's at this point in his 2012 Cy Young season.
But this year's Cy Young race is a heated competition among three aces with compelling arguments. Jacob deGrom has a historic 1.68 ERA for the Mets, while Scherzer leads the league in wins (16), WHIP (0.88) and strikeouts (249), all of which put him ahead of his Cy Young pace of the past two seasons.
Most voters are likely to overlook wins in favor of other, more meaningful pitching metrics, but that could wind up working against Nola. DeGrom has only eight wins for the Mets, and although Nola is the only one of the three who is pitching for a playoff contender, the Cy Young typically goes to the best pitcher, not necessarily the most valuable one.
Nola, undoubtedly, qualifies as the latter.
Aaron Nola vs. Max Scherzer! Phillies in a playoff race! On a Tuesday night at the end of summer! You would think Citizens Bank Park would be the place to be, right? Wrong. The announced crowd of 21,083 was the smallest since June 13. Too bad, as our Bob Brookover writes, because this was a game all Philadelphia baseball fans should've wanted to see.
It was fitting that perhaps the toughest loss of the season ended in a most inconceivable way. Matt Breen explains how pinch-running pitcher Vince Velasquez got called out after tagging up too soon from second base — on a play on which he didn't even have to tag up.
Think of the Phillies' no-lose waiver trade for Jose Bautista as one last big swing for the postseason. Bautista joined the team shortly before the game and struck out in a pinch-hit appearance in his Phillies debut.
The record — 7-14 since Aug. 5 — certainly doesn't reflect it, but after acquiring six players in the past 31 days, manager Gabe Kapler believes the Phillies are a better team now than when they were in first place.
As usual, staff photographer Steven M. Falk has some great shots from the game, including Kapler blowing the perfect bubble.
Tonight: Phillies turn to Jake Arrieta to try to avoid sweep by Nationals, 7:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Day off for Phillies, who will join PSPCA at Morgan's Pier to help needy animals, 6 p.m.
Friday: Hazleton's Joe Maddon leads the NL-best Cubs into town, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Phillies and Cubs continue their three-game series, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday: Cubs ace Jon Lester faces Phillies in series finale, 1:35 p.m.
Over the past two seasons, Pat Neshek has made 63 relief appearances for the Phillies. In 57 of those appearances, he has exited the game without allowing a run. You need only your two hands to count the number of runs he has allowed (10) — and only eight of them have been earned — in 57 2/3 innings. His ERA with the Phillies: 1.25.
So, yes, Neshek picked a terrible time to remind everyone that he is, indeed, human by giving up his first home run since July 30 of last year.
"He's been our best reliever against righthanded hitters, and it was the perfect pocket for Neshek," Kapler said of using the veteran sidearmer Tuesday in the top of the ninth inning against Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto and Ryan Zimmerman. "He's been exceptional for us all season long. I trust Neshek in that situation."
For once, he just didn't come through.
Question: Why not let [Scott] Kingery spell [Cesar] Hernandez for a few games? Hernandez seems like his head is not in the game lately, and you would see what Kingery could do at second base. Thanks! — Bill B., via e-mail
Answer: It's a fair question, Bill. Hernandez has played every inning of every game since July 30 and is batting .204 with 28 strikeouts, three homers and a .614 OPS during that span. I wouldn't say his head hasn't been in it. I would strongly contend, however, that he could benefit from a day off.