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September 27, 2020

Kevin Cooney: Who will take blame for Phillies' September disaster?

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Phillies-Rays-Bryce-Harper_092720_USAT Mary Holt/USA Today Sports

The Phillies season came to a sad but fitting end Sunday.

There was a lot to digest from a 58-minute press conference almost 12 months ago. But the one answer that stood out on October 11, 2019 – back when the world seemed awfully different — from John Middleton’s decision to fire Gabe Kapler at that time was one simple one that the Phillies owner harped on.

The topic was about possibly usurping power from his front office by firing a manager. And along the way, Middleton talked about how the September swoons in Kapler’s two years were the main reason for the change.

“Ultimately, I felt that if I were going to bring Gabe back, I had to be very confident we would have a different outcome,” Middleton said. “And those September collapses, I kept bumping up against them and I couldn’t get comfortable enough that if I brought him back, we wouldn’t have another problem.”

One year and sixty games later, the Phillies have a problem. A much bigger problem. One that could make those changes from last year seem like child’s play.

They went meekly again into that good night, even as the rest of the baseball world kept giving them chance after chance to sneak into an obscenely bloated post-season bracket. The 5-0 loss to the Rays Sunday in St. Petersburg was made especially maddening because the two teams that had to lose for the Phillies to earn an eight seed – the Brewers and Giants — ended up doing just that.

Down the stretch, Philadelphia lost seven of its final eight — six of those defeats coming after general manager Matt Klentak talked about how no team wanted to see the Phillies in the post-season. Well, they got their wish for the ninth straight year. (Note to all future executives: don’t talk about the playoffs until you are close to getting there.)

And you can’t blame this on Gabe Kapler, Pete Mackanin or even Ryne Sandberg. You can’t even really blame this on Joe Girardi, even if there are individual moments that forced you to scratch your head.

No, the constant in these three years have been the men at the top of the organizational chart. It will be interesting to see if Klentak or Andy MacPhail get shown the door this week. While Girardi came up with high praise for Klentak – “I love working with Matt Klentak” — on the teleconference Sunday evening, it is clear that Middleton’s hand has pretty much been forced. He can’t bring this back in this form. Even if it seemed likely that he would perhaps give this front office a pass with a 60 game pandemic-altered schedule, the drumbeat has always been there. And now, it has been raised to the point where its pretty clear that the structure is broken.

Perhaps Bryce Harper was the one who summed it up best. After going on about how much the Phils needed to re-sign free agent to be catcher J.T. Realmuto and develop pitching, his answer on Klentak’s status was far more muted. “I’m not an owner, and I’m glad I don’t have to make those decisions,” Harper said Sunday night, an answer that hardly dripped in sentimentality.

It isn’t that the Phillies missed the playoffs. It is the fact that they were so ill equipped to handle the true test of a race — even with a sample size this small — and that they continue to trip over the ottoman year after year. It’s baseball’s version of Groundhog Day and now that has resulted in the sport’s second longest postseason drought behind the Seattle Mariners.

Literally, they had control of their own destiny all week. They had it in their hands again on Sunday as the out of town scoreboards showed the trouble for Milwaukee and San Francisco. And yet, they played down to the moment — a recurring trait for far too long.

Aaron Nola came up small — again — on Sunday. The right-hander certainly isn’t among Philadelphia’s biggest problems, but his performances in the season’s final month is alarming. After his three earned runs in 3 2/3 innings on Sunday, Nola is now 7-12 in the season’s final month with a 4.28 ERA. Over the last three years when the Phillies were in contention, it’s 4-9 with a 4.67 ERA. That’s alarming for a guy who you count as a big time part of your rotation.

“I wish I had an answer,” the soft-spoken Nola said when asked about his September struggles on Sunday. “Just bad luck in September, I guess.”

It isn’t bad luck that has caused these September collapses. It’s lack of talent in key spots. The lineup that the Phillies put out there was overall solid, but it did have some inconsistencies that needed to be patched. Centerfield is a wasteland for this franchise at this time with neither Roman Quinn or Adam Haseley appearing close to a full time answer. There are now possible questions at catcher and shortstop with Realmuto and Didi Gregorius. Alec Bohm has vaulted into the rookie of the year debate, but it is fair to wonder if his future is at first for defensive reasons. (That could allow Rhys Hoskins to play DH — a spot he may be forced into with the possibility of Tommy John surgery looming on his non-throwing elbow.)

Yet, the bigger issue is the bullpen — a historically bad group that may end up being the only thing that anyone remembers about the 2020 Phillies. The Phils finished with an ERA of 7.06 – and that really didn’t give as good a picture of the carnage that took place. The total impact of the blown leads — 21 of them this season — sapped the life out of this group.

So where now? The early portion of this week will be very interesting as Middleton either dismisses his front office or has to publicly defend why this failed formula is still the path to go upon. And that decision will set the stage for the biggest one — the Realmuto contract — that is coming right behind it.

Twelve months ago, John Middleton looked at the picture and decided that changing managers was the overall answer.

On Sunday, with his team fumbling another chance from its silver platter, he had to realize that it wasn’t just one person that was the problem.


Kevin hosts the “Working The Beat” podcast with Mike Kern, available on iTunes, Google Play and everywhere podcasts are heard. A regular on WIP, Kevin loves to interact with readers on Twitter. Follow him there at @KevinCooney.

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