The conversation began to turn to 2019 earlier this week as the Phillies continued to pile up losses in the season's final month when Gabe Kapler was asked if Jorge Alfaro would be his starting catcher next year.
The Phillies, Kapler said, are "still squarely in 2018" and they remain focused on their "hunt for a playoff spot." So it felt fitting when a day later, it was Alfaro delivering a go-ahead homer in Tuesday night's 5-2 victory over the Mets at Citizens Bank Park. It was enough to allow Kapler to keep his sights set on his team's ever-so-slim playoff hopes and enough to remind why Alfaro will have a role next season.
The win moved the Phillies to 5 1/2 games of the first-place Braves in the NL East with 12 games left. The hopes are slim, but the Phillies play the Braves seven more times beginning with a three-game series in Atlanta this weekend. So those hopes are not yet extinguished.
Alfaro's three-run homer off reliever Drew Smith capped a five-run sixth inning after the Phils went five innings without a run. Wilson Ramos added an RBI single and Justin Bour tied the game tied the game with a pinch-hit double. Kapler said Bour's hit was "as big a hit as we've had all season long." Bour sat in the dugout with his helmet on waiting to be called on by Kapler. Bour said he's always ready. And he came up big on Tuesday.
The inning may have kept the Phillies' chances alive, but it also served a reminder of the chances they squandered the previous two days when they failed to take advantage of two Atlanta losses. If the Phillies are to move into first place, it will take quite the run. Those hopes would feel much more real if the Phillies stood two games closer to Atlanta.
"We have a chance, for sure," said Aaron Nola as the final outs of the Braves' loss to the Cardinals played on a television above his head. "Seven games against the Braves. Have to go over there, but just worry about what we can do and not really worry about the Braves right now. I think that's what will get us to where we want to be, worrying about our games and blocking everything else out."
The five-run inning took Nola off the hook after the righthander was set to be saddled with a loss despite allowing just two runs in 52/3 innings. He struck out nine, walked two, and allowed a home run to opposing pitcher Steven Matz. Kapler lifted Nola with runners on the corners in the fifth after he threw 104 pitches. He remains two outs shy of reaching 200 innings pitched for the season, a mark a Phillies starter has not reached since 2014. The Phillies do not have plans to shut down Nola before the end of the season. He is scheduled to start twice more.
"I think it speaks to durability," Kapler said of Nola inching towards 200 innings. "Look, if you're the best option for your team, more times than not, the manager is going to give you the opportunity to take down an additional inning. So I think it speaks to the fact that almost always Nola feels like the best option to get the next three hitters out and piling up 200 innings is certainly a huge accomplishment."
The Phillies may still be in 2018, but it is OK to wonder what Alfaro's role will be in 2019. His pitch-framing has been exceptional, he's incredibly athletic, and his arm is one of the strongest in baseball. But his defense, especially his ability to block pitches and the consistent accuracy of his arm, needs improvement. The Phillies knew he was not a finished product when he started the season in the major leagues. He is also just 25 years old. And there is still time to develop.
But his home run — a majestic shot to left center — was another display of his power. He certainly has a role with the Phillies in 2019, but the team could be fine without naming a "starting catcher" if they bring back Ramos. Ramos is already one of baseball's best hitting catchers and Alfaro has the power to be a lineup threat if he can limit his strikeouts.
"He's cutting his strikeout rate down away from being an all-around elite catcher," Kapler said. "The power is there. He uses the entire field. When he hits the ball, he hits it with incredible velocity. And he can get it in the air. If he just puts a few more balls in play, I mean, you could see a guy who could hit .300 for us. You could see a guy who could hit 20-plus homers for us. Obviously, given his defensive prowess and his ability to keep the ball in the zone and get borderline calls, you could see him as a five-day-a-week catcher on a championship-caliber team."
A time share of Alfaro and Ramos, who has been excellent since arriving this summer, would be a fine way to enter next season. And it was both of the catchers who delivered big hits to keep the manager focused on 2018.