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Phillies see NL East hopes end in Atlanta

MLB.com @ToddZolecki

ATLANTA -- Gabe Kapler opened Spring Training a little more than seven months ago saying the Phillies had the opportunity to "shock" people.

It meant, he said, they would be "very competitive" in September. It meant "being in the mix, being in the hunt, fighting for the National League East." In March, after a bad season-opening series against the Braves, Kapler doubled-down. He stood in the middle of the manager's office at SunTrust Park and said the losses would not dash their hopes to make the postseason, "which I believe we will do." But nearly six months later the Braves ended the Phillies' title hunt, clinching the NL East with Saturday's 5-3 victory.

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ATLANTA -- Gabe Kapler opened Spring Training a little more than seven months ago saying the Phillies had the opportunity to "shock" people.

It meant, he said, they would be "very competitive" in September. It meant "being in the mix, being in the hunt, fighting for the National League East." In March, after a bad season-opening series against the Braves, Kapler doubled-down. He stood in the middle of the manager's office at SunTrust Park and said the losses would not dash their hopes to make the postseason, "which I believe we will do." But nearly six months later the Braves ended the Phillies' title hunt, clinching the NL East with Saturday's 5-3 victory.

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The Phillies can be eliminated from NL Wild Card contention as early as Sunday.

"I'm going to keep this answer relatively short. We feel disappointment," Kapler said after watching the Braves celebrate on the field. "I'm not going to keep moving on that response. I don't know that there's much else to say on it. Yes, we feel disappointment."

The Phillies had the second-best record (63-48) in the National League on Aug. 5. They have the worst record (15-28) in the NL since. Yes, the Phillies lost 96 games last season. Yes, they opened the season with the youngest roster in baseball. Yes, they played important games in September. But this was a lost opportunity and opportunities aren't guaranteed in the future, although the Phillies seem well positioned to make a deeper run in 2019 and beyond.

Video: PHI@ATL: Kapler talks Phillies' season after 5-3 loss

 So, what went wrong?

"Defense, pitching and we didn't swing the bats well," Phillies right-hander Jake Arrieta said. "We didn't score as many runs as the other team. That's all phases of the game, we weren't as good, and I think that's pretty obvious."

Arrieta's assessment is the simple and correct one. The Phillies' offense struggled to score runs throughout the season, even after acquiring Wilson Ramos, Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Bour and Jose Bautista before and after the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. They had the worst defense in baseball, which impacted nearly every game. The Phillies pitched pretty well through early August, but struggled down the stretch.

Arrieta notably struggled. He allowed four runs in just two innings Saturday, marking the shortest start of his career. He is 3-4 with a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts since the All-Star break and 1-4 with a 6.64 ERA in his last eight starts, which coincides with the Phillies' fall from contention.

The Phillies needed more from Arrieta, who signed a three-year, $75-million contract in March.

Video: PHI@ATL: Arrieta fans Freeman in the 1st inning

"This wasn't something that started today obviously," Arrieta said about the Phillies' late-season swoon. "Individually, the last month or so I haven't been very good, and we didn't really take care of our business to get the job done. They did. That's why we have the result that we currently have."

Arrieta said he does not know why he hasn't pitched well.

"This game is humbling," Arrieta said. "You don't always have it figured out and when you feel like you do, you get kicked in the teeth."

 Video: PHI@ATL: Herrera singles to end Folty's no-hit bid

Rhys Hoskins seems to feel the same way. He is one of the team's few bona fide young stars. His 127 OPS+ is 29th out of 144 qualified hitters in baseball. He has had a very good season, but he also has been streaky.

The struggles have gnawed at him.

Following Friday night's loss to the Braves, which put the Phillies on the brink of elimination, Hoskins sat in front of his locker with the a red hoodie pulled over his head. He sat there seemingly forever as teammates around him showered, changed, talked, ate and left the ballpark.

"I take a lot of responsibility for it," Hoskins said about the team's late-season fade. "I wasn't me. That's frustrating and disappointing. But all you can do is learn from it.

"The inconsistency is frustrating. That's what makes good players great. I think it comes as a learned skill. All I can do is take what has happened, albeit disappointing, and learn from it and move forward with it."

The Phillies would be well-served to surround Hoskins with more like-minded players in the future. He cannot carry the burden alone. The front office will pursue superstar free agents like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper in the offseason. But they need other players currently in the organization to be better.

Video: PHI@ATL: Morgan struck by comebacker, exits game

Arrieta and Hoskins are optimistic things will be better next year.

"We're close," Arrieta said. "It just didn't happen for us."

"Despite the result of what's happened in the last couple of months, there's a lot of excitement around this club," Hoskins said. "There's a lot of young guys that have taken steps forward. You've seen that throughout the year. You caught glimpses of it for long stretches at a time. I think with more experience, more games played, the more you learn, those stretches get longer and the bad stretches get shorter. So, yeah, it's exciting going forward. Obviously, as disappointing as it gets right now. But we'll hang our hat on that: It's going to be exciting going forward."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Mike Foltynewicz needed just six pitches to retire the Phillies in order in the first inning. Conversely, Arrieta walked the first two batters he faced on eight pitches before striking out Freddie Freeman on three pitches. Arrieta then walked Nick Markakis on four pitches to load the bases. Johan Camargo followed with a single to left field to score Ronald Acuna Jr. and Ender Inciarte to make it 2-0. Arrieta allowed two more runs in the second inning before leaving the game. He said he expects to make his next start, although the Phillies could save him for next season.

"I have plenty of bullets," Arrieta said. "Health-wise I'm fine. The results stunk. I'm not blaming it on anything other than just not being very good."

Video: PHI@ATL: Camargo plates 2 to give Braves early lead

SOUND SMART
Hoskins singled to score a run in the eighth inning, when the Phillies scored three runs to make it 4-3. He has 32 home runs and 93 RBIs this season. He is trying to become the first Phillies player to have 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs in a season since Ryan Howard in 2011, when the slugger had 33 homers and 116 RBIs.

Video: PHI@ATL: Hoskins brings Phillies within 1 with single

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
The Phillies envisioned themselves celebrating a division title on a field somewhere in the season's final days. Instead, they watched the Braves.

"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. And I never came off that position because I always thought it to be possible, and I always believed in the players in that room. 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."

Video: Must C Clinch: Braves capture NL East division crown

HE SAID IT
"It's hard to quantify chemistry. It really is. I wish I had an answer for you. I think if I did have an answer for you, then things might have not gone the way that they did. But it's something that you think about. Look, I think every guy's goal in here was to do what they're doing today. I don't think that changed from before July 31 to after July 31. So, in that sense, I'm not sure it had much to do with where we're at right now." -- Hoskins, on the roster additions perhaps altering the team's chemistry the final several weeks of the season

UP NEXT
Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola (16-5, 2.44 ERA) faces Braves right-hander Anibal Sanchez (6-6, 3.01 ERA) on Sunday in the final game of a four-game series at SunTrust Park. Nola remains a National League Cy Young Award candidate, although Mets ace Jacob deGrom is the heavy favorite to take home the hardware. First pitch is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. ET.

Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Philadelphia Phillies, Jake Arrieta