This season has been odd. It is perhaps the oddest in my memory. Certainly, I have seen more surprising seasons. The '93 Phillies came out of nowhere. The beginning of the '95 season was so too good to be true that it didn't even last until the All-Star break. But these seasons were not the oddity that this one is because this season only became eventful when it wasn't anymore. After months of disappointing news and disappointing play, the Phillies started winning every close game they could. And at the end of last week, they'd brought us hope. We had hope that the aging core of heroes could pull off one last sprint to the finish, show the final leg kick that originally transformed them from a talented bunch to champions in 2007. But as soon as we recognized that hope for what it was, it was gone.
There is no better evidence for the oddity of this season than the following two tweets from the unflaggingly rational Bill Baer:
STOP WINNING RT @TonyMcIV The Phillies are 65-75. They are 14.5 gms out of first, and 8.5 out of the wild card.— Bill Baer (@CrashburnAlley) September 6, 2014
all right, fuck it, let's go get ourselves a wild card— Bill Baer (@CrashburnAlley) September 6, 2014
Within a matter of hours, he went from embracing the tank to rooting for an improbable run. But two nights later the last shot at the playoffs have evaporated, sublimated by the radioactive Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen. It might have seemed irrational to hope on Kyle Kendrick's arm to help carry the team to a 90% winning percentage in September, but that's just the kind of irrationality a fan should have. Moreover, KK has recently renewed himself, avoiding runs in the first inning and not treating other innings like they were the first inning. And the renewal continued last night, at least until too much was asked of him. For 7 innings KK looked good, albeit flirting with danger. He began the game elevating his sinker. He gave up a lot of hits in the early innings but none of those runners scored. And along the way he walked just 2 while striking out 8. When he seemed on the brink of collapse in the 5th inning, having surrendered a home run to Marte and walked the next two batters, KK battled back to strike out Neil Walker and pop-up Russell Martin. That began a streak of 8 batters retired consecutively, sweeping KK into the 8th inning.
Now if you look at KK's line last night and you watched none of the game, you would probably conclude that KK had another bad outing. 5 earned runs in 7 innings is bad, even if it comes with a 4:1 K:BB ratio. But the blame for that line and for the game eventually slipping out of reach does not belong with KK. It belongs with Sandberg. KK had thrown 110 pitches after 7 innings. He'd kept the Pirates to 2 runs. Although the Phillies were losing 2-1, it was not on KK. Jeff Locke pitched well and the Phillies couldn't muster more than a 3rd inning rally against him. The game was close enough that the Phillies could still rally against the Pirates' bullpen, largely thanks to KK. And with an excellent assortment of power arms to deploy in the late innings, Sandberg had to be feeling great about their chances to stay close and steal the game back. That must be why he sent KK out to pitch in the 8th inning. He felt so good about his bullpen that, by some form of dream-like association, he transferred that feeling to KK. With a smile, a wink, and creepy shoulder rub, Sandberg told Kendrick to go get 'em (tiger), and the game fell apart from there. KK gave up an infield hit to McCutchen, an RBI single to Walker, a hit-and-run single to Martin, and then Diekman came in to face Ike Davis, who was predictably pinch hit for with a righty, and Diek gave up more runs while retiring just one batter (a sac fly). And that was Sandberg's second management error, leading to more runs. Ken Giles was available. Whatever the handedness of the batter, when it is late and close and you need outs without allowing runners to move up and Ken Giles is available, the correct answer is always Ken Giles. The Phillies' win expectancy went from 25% at the start of the inning to 1.5% when Diekman was lifted. I don't think we should get mad at KK for that.
To make the mismanagement of the top of the 8th more galling, the Phillies rallied for 3 runs in the bottom of the 8th, capped off by a Chase Utley triple that drove in two runs. It is a fallacy to say that if only the Phillies hadn't given up 4 runs in the 8th, they would have been ahead 4-2 going into the 9th and oxygenated the embers of their playoff race. But it's a fallacy I feel, whether or not I believe it. The difference in the wild card standings between the loss and the win is two games: 9 games back or 7 back of the Pirates. A sweep would have meant the Phils were 5 games back of the Pirates and with the Braves and Brewers falling apart, possibly 5 back of the 2nd wild card spot with 17 to play. Instead, the Phillies are 9 back with 19 to play. The Pirates are on pace to win 85 games. To make it to 85 wins, the Phillies have to win every single game from here on out. Where did that playoff race go? I didn't even have a chance to get excited.
Fangraph of the Sandberg Crater: