PHILADELPHIA -- Aaron Nola is trying to single-handedly to keep the Phillies’ postseason hopes alive in the National League.
He could use some help. He is getting little.
Nationals left fielder Juan Soto crushed a two-out, two-run home run to left-center field against Hector Neris in the ninth inning Saturday night in a 4-3 victory over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, sending the Phillies to their 23rd loss in 37 games. Phillies president Andy MacPhail made a point Friday to mention that if the season ended at the All-Star break, the Phillies would make the postseason as the second National League Wild Card, despite their recent struggles. But after the Phillies lost their first two games against the Nationals to open the second half, and the Brewers won Saturday against the Giants, the Phillies are no longer in possession of a playoff spot.
“We’re a better team than we’ve showed over the last calendar month or more,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said. “I expect us to be better down the stretch. It’s July 13. A lot of baseball left to be played.”
The first-place Braves entered Saturday on pace to win 96 games. The Phillies (47-45) have 70 games to play. They would need to finish 49-21 (.700) to match that mark. Even if the Braves stumbled and won 90, the Phillies would need to finish 43-27 (.614).
The club was 33-22 (.600) with a 3 1/2-game lead over the Braves on May 29, when they began their current slide.
“I’m not thinking about the standings right now,” Kapler said. “We understand what they are. We’re not blind to the fact that we’ve fallen behind in the National League East, and we’re not blind to the fact that it’s going to take a push to make the playoffs. Fully aware of that. But we’re not in a panic mode by any stretch.”
The Phillies have suffered their share of bad losses this season, but this might have been the worst, considering the circumstances.
They opened the second half with a critical seven-game homestand and the July 31 Trade Deadline fast approaching. They got another great start from Nola. He allowed five hits and one run in six innings, striking out nine and walking four. He is 3-1 with a 0.76 ERA in his last five starts, becoming the first Phillies starter to allow no more than one earned run in five consecutive starts since Cole Hamels from July 19 to Aug. 9, 2014.
Nola has been a lifesaver. Remove his starts from the Phillies’ last 22 games since June 15 and the rest of the Phillies’ rotation has a 6.91 ERA. The Phillies are 3-2 in Nola’s starts. They are 5-12 in the others.
But the Phillies yielded a run to make it a 3-2 game in the eighth, when Maikel Franco made an error with two outs, allowing a run to score. Anthony Rendon hit a two-out single to left field in the ninth. Soto followed, crushing a first-pitch splitter to hand the Nationals the lead.
“At that moment, I have to throw my best pitch,” Neris said.
“He hung it and he threw it right down the middle," Soto said. "For me, I just made an adjustment. I stepped to the front of the box, to hit in the front part of the box, and was just looking for that one. Maybe that’s why I saw it a bit more hanging, and just hit it."
The Phillies had the potential game-tying run on second base with two outs in the ninth, but pinch-hitter Andrew Knapp flied out to center field to cap a nine-pitch at-bat to end the game. The Phillies turn to right-hander Jake Arrieta on Sunday afternoon to try and salvage the series. He is pitching with a bone spur in his right elbow that has contributed to a 6.63 ERA in his last seven starts.
“It’s not over yet,” Nola said. “We all know that. Yeah, there’s a lot of talent. We all know that we’re good enough to keep winning. I think that things will start to click. We’ve got to keep winning. It’s plain and simple."
Kapler said morale is fine, despite the losses.
“I just saw Jay Bruce before I walked into my office,” he said. “We’re strong. We understand that this is not the brand of baseball that we can play and reach the postseason and go deep in the postseason. But we’re tough, right? We know that we’re going to come out tomorrow and fight. We know that it’s July 13. There’s no quit in this team. We’re resilient. We’re fine.”