ATLANTA — Over the last few weeks, as the losses mounted and the deficit grew, it became increasingly clear to the Phillies that they wouldn't be celebrating a division title or even a wild-card berth. Not this season.
So, when the chase finally ended here Saturday, manager Gabe Kapler embraced the hurt.
It was 3:44 p.m. when Atlanta Braves leftfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. caught the last out of a 5-3 Jake Arrieta dud that eliminated the Phillies. And for the next minute or two, as the tomahawk-chopping crowd at SunTrust Park exalted, Kapler and several of his players lingered in the third-base dugout to watch the Braves kick off their National League East-clinching party.
"I think it's important to feel the blow of that," Kapler said, "because up until a couple of days ago, I felt like we had a chance to be the ones having that moment at our ballpark. I think there's some value in just allowing the sting of that to sink in and acknowledge it and use it as motivation for next season."
There will be ample time to discuss next season, especially with the Phillies facing the most fascinating winter in recent franchise history. For now, there's the matter of how a team that had the NL's second-best record on Aug. 7 could fall so far and so fast. Back to that in a minute.
Needing a win to give ace Aaron Nola a shot at keeping their faint hopes alive on Sunday, the Phillies turned to Arrieta, the former Cy Young Award winner whom they signed to a three-year, $75 million contract in spring training because they wanted him to show a young team how to win. He gave up two runs in each of the first two innings before being replaced, marking the shortest start of his career.
Talk about a bad time to lay a colossal egg.
"I didn't do my job today," Arrieta said. "You've got to tip your cap. They won the division. They really did."
Arrieta walked the bases loaded in the first inning before giving up Johan Camargo's two-run single through the left side of an infield that was mostly vacated because of the shift. In the second inning, he allowed three consecutive two-out singles, including a two-run hit by Freddie Freeman on a hanging slider.
It was the continuation of a lengthy struggle for Arrieta. With a 6.64 ERA in his last eight starts and a 5.09 ERA since the all-star break, he's as complicit in the Phillies' collapse as anyone.
"Individually, the last month or so I haven't been very good," said Arrieta, who lacked an explanation. "That's part of the reason it's continuing. [I'm] still trying to kind of figure that out."
Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz didn't allow a hit until Odubel Herrera's leadoff single in the seventh inning. The Phillies broke through for three runs in the eighth inning, but it was too little and much too late to stave off the inevitable.
It was fitting that it all ended in Atlanta. It was here, after a brutal, season-opening series, that Kapler vowed the Phillies would make the playoffs. By Aug. 7, when they won a game in Arizona to raise their record to a season-high 15 games over .500, his promise was beginning to look like a reality.
Since then, though, the Phillies went 14-27 and lost 10 games in the standings to the Braves. They won only two of 14 series. They were beaten at home (9-12), on the road (5-14), and at a neutral site (Aug. 19 in Williamsport). And they were outscored, 217-163.
Did the Phillies simply overachieve for the season's first four months? Did a wave of additions at the trade deadline disrupt the chemistry in the clubhouse?
"I have no clue," Rhys Hoskins said about the trades. "It's hard to quantify chemistry. I wish I had an answer for you. But it's something that you think about. Look, I think every guy's goal in here was to do what [the Braves] are doing today. I don't think that changed from before July 31 to after July 31."
Like Kapler, Hoskins made a point of watching the Braves' on-field celebration before heading inside. For months, he has imagined the Phillies doing the rejoicing. Until a few days ago, he still thought it was possible.
"That's what we've been working for since Feb. 15," Hoskins said. "You see somebody else do it, being in the position that we were in, of course it sticks with you."