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Covert Tanking: Nationals 4, Phillies 1

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The Phillies lost to the Nationals Sunday afternoon due to a combination of offensive impotence and managerial ineptitude. Aaron Harang continued his bid for NL Cy Young and MVP.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

There was speculation during the 2014-15 NBA season that the Los Angeles Lakers were engaging in a covert tanking mission. They hired a coach in Byron Scott who is a noted opponent of analytics and efficient offensive attacks. Pairing him with Kobe Bryant's corpse and Nick "Swaggy P" Young's YOLO offensive game seemed like a strategy intended to make a bad roster perform even worse than its talent-level.

With Ryne Sandberg at the helm, it is entirely possible the Phillies are themselves engaging in a similarly un-acknowledged effort to lose more games than they should based on roster construction alone. Between odd lineup decisions (Ben Revere in RF), his tendency to abuse pitchers (routine 30+ pitch appearances from relievers), and his disregard for matchups in deploying relievers, Sandberg has likely hurt the Phillies more than he has helped them.

But today was #HarangDay, os not even Sandberg could get in the way of the Phillies' inevitable success. Harang, as you might have heard, entered the game as the 8th most valuable player in the National League, according to Baseball-Reference's WAR.

Harang came out and did Harang things today. He didn't get a ton of strikeouts and was probably a little lucky with regards to stranded runners. So,  despite giving up 7 hits, including 2 doubles and a triple, while issuing 2 walks over six innings, Harang only allowed two runs to score. It was a #HarangDay if ever a #HarangDay there was.

With two gangstas like Harang and Gio Gonzalez on the mound, offense was likely to be in short supply. Through six innings, the 2-1 Nationals lead reflected the proficiency of the two starting pitchers.

Once the starters come out of the game, though, managers have a chance to influence the outcome of the game. Both Ryne Sandberg and Nationals manager Matt Williams have reputations as being among the worst managers in baseball. Both lived up to their reputations as they each took an active and logic-defying approach to reliever usage. Unfortunately for the Phillies, only Sandberg got burned.

Justin De Fratus started out the bottom of the seventh--the first inning post-Harang--and, after yielding a leadoff double to Denard Span, retired Ian Desmond and Yunel Escobar to set up a two-out, runner on third situation with Bryce Harper coming up. With the right-handed Ryan Zimmerman on deck, there are a couple ways a reasonable person might handle this situation. Since De Fratus had only thrown eight pitches to that point, the most reasonable approach would be to leave him in to either intentionally walk or pitch around Bryce Harper and then pitch to Zimmerman. Another reasonable, although less ideal, approach would be to bring in a LOOGY, i.e., Jake Diekman, to pitch to Bryce Harper. In this situation, a right-handed reliever would be ready to come in to face Zimmerman if Harper got on base.

Sandberg pursued neither of those avenues. He brought in Diekman, who gave up a weak single to Harper. Instead of recognizing that Diekman is the physical embodiment of the LOOGY ideal, Sandberg left his lefty stay in to face Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman took a Diekman fastball to right center for double that scored Bryce Harper.  Sandberg pursued the non-optimal option of both challenging one of the hottest hitters in baseball and brazenly ignoring platoon advantages in reliever deployment. Baseball is a game that mostly consists of failure, so most of the time, managers don't get burned for bad decisions. This time Sandberg did.

After scoring 8 runs for Cole Hamels yesterday, the Phillies offense was never able to get anything going today. They had 8 hits, including 3 doubles, but fell prey to a bit of sequencing misfortune. The only inning in which the Phillies recorded more than one hit was the fourth, which, believe it or not, was the only inning in which the Phillies scored.

The Phillies have another afternoon game tomorrow as they travel to New York for a 1:10 PM game against the Mets. Severino Gonzalez will face Bartolo Colon, who turned 42 today.