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One of Gabe Kapler’s first mistakes haunted him all season

Anyone waiting to pounce on the Phillies’ polarizing new manager did not have to wait long.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The first time Gabe Kapler brought Hoby Milner into a game, it was the sixth inning of Aaron Nola’s start on Opening Day. Nola had thrown 68 pitches, and the offense had stacked a 5-0 lead over the Braves in Atlanta, but Kapler didn’t like the numbers he saw with Nola about to face the Atlanta lineup for the third time. So he brought in Milner, and in doing so, unlocked the dormant Braves offense that would go on to win the NL East.

“Once they took [Nola] out, it was kind of a jolt for us,” [Freddie] Freeman said. “You wanted to come back. Once they took out a guy like that, it gave us a bolt of energy.”

The second time Kapler brought Milner into a game, there were two outs in the fifth inning the following day. This pitching change set itself apart during the Phillies’ opening series by being the sole entrance of Milner into a game that was not viewed in hindsight as ruining everything.

The next time Kapler brought Milner into a game—Milner’s third appearance in three games—you’d think he would have had the practice down.

Win or lose this season, focus typically fell on Gabe Kapler. His in-game decisions raised plenty of questions, whispered and screamed. These questions all had answers, of course—one thing Kapler provided all season long was answers, from the verbose to the roundabout to the unsatisfying—and you either liked or didn’t like them. More often than not, he had done something unorthodox or weird before the final out.

Any defender of Kapler has to admit that there were plenty of moments in which his defensive shifting, his pitching match-ups, and his general desire to out-manuever an opponent seemed to torpedo a win, or at least undermine common sense. Any critic of Kapler has to confess that before the Phillies’ mid-August swoon began, he was an NL Manager of the Year candidate. Neither group will do so.

But we are not here to sway members of either unmovable party; simply to point out that the filter through which Kapler’s successes and failures would pass throughout the entire season was established in the season’s third game. Very early on, facing the Braves team that would outshine them to the season’s end, the Phillies’ rookie manager made a thoughtless mistake that gave head-shaking fans and scoffing writers the punchline they needed to roast him the entire year.

The Phillies could have started the season winless, but thankfully, a 5-4 victory in game two against Atlanta that used nine different pitchers prevented an 0-3 start for Kapler (“It seems aggressive bullpen usage is going to be a thing for the Phillies this season,” wrote noted clairvoyant Todd Zolecki).

In the series rubber match, the Braves went up 5-2 in the third inning on Vince Velasquez, and Kapler began a sequence of pitching changes that would culminate in Pedro Florimon being on the mound with the Phillies down by eleven runs. But his first move was to bring in Hoby Milner, an an act so basic, even the Phillies couldn’t screw it up on a day in which everything was being screwed up.

They screwed it up.

More specifically, Kapler screwed it up. Milner hadn’t thrown a pitch in the bullpen to warm up yet and was about to enter the game. Umpire Jerry Layne stepped in and Milner was able to throw some pitches from the mound after entering, but the whole situation was easily classifiable as a rookie mistake for a manager.

The moment was unprecedented in its boneheadedness, as noted by the league.

But he Phillies did far more wrong than just call in a pitcher before he could warm up that day. They lost by 13 runs, blown out so badly in the third game of the season that a position player took the mound. They committed four errors. The Braves’ third string catcher, Chris Stewart, had two hits and a sac fly. The Milner warm-up blunder was just the only one that had never happened before.

“The circumstances were so far below a basic application of the rules that Jerry had to improvise,” Buster Olney wrote, when asked what an umpire is supposed to do in the situation Kapler had created. Another reporter wrote that Layne had “felt sorry for Gabe Kapler.”

People were, in general, **displeased** with the new manager’s debut series, for good reason.

For good multiple reasons.

From that point forward, some people had all they needed to know about Gabe Kapler, even though, as he apparently said in one interview, the incident was sort of the fault of someone else on the coaching staff. But no matter who was to blame, in the public’s eye, the incident remained at the forefront of all criticisms, and the culprit was Kapler, the man they had seen walk onto the field and signal for Milner prematurely.

We were all concerned, of course. Not only had the Phillies lost a series, but now the team was being indefensibly mocked. We didn’t know that the Phillies would actually go 15-10—winning six straight and 11 of 13—in April, and finish the first half 11 games over .500. We didn’t know they’d sweep three different four-game series and appear on even ground with the eventual 108-win Red Sox.

We also didn’t know they’d go 8-20 in September, crumbling to a sub-.500 record after being 15 games above it.

But, you know. Now we do.

This collapse happened “because” of a lot of things, but Kapler’s reliance on analytics to make in-game decisions overshadows them all. The people that hate the “analytics” he represents want to use him as a cautionary tale, chortling pompously as though baseball hasn’t changed since the invention of the curveball. An over reliance on anything will get you killed in a 162-game season, because nothing works every time. A lot of the time, it felt like Kapler was trying to outsmart baseball. He lost.

But he never stopped shifting, swapping, and switching. The Phillies rarely used the same lineup twice. Later in games, when crucial moments arose, Kapler seemed to throw bodies at the problem, emptying his bench and his bullpen without hesitation. He never did it for no reason. But the reasons weren’t always appreciated, understood, or correct. And when he would make a game longer by making pitching change after pitching change or shift his defense into the bleachers, it was handy for his critics to have this quite silly moment from the beginning of the season to reference along with the rest of their complaints.

One such opportunity arose on May 16, when Kapler removed Edubray Ramos from a game after Ramos had come on in the ninth inning with the Phillies ahead and recorded two outs. Kapler wanted to go to struggling closer Hector Neris to get the final out.

Kapler was certainly opening himself up to extensive, and deserved, criticism should Neris blow the game. The move confused and annoyed people, and personally affronted former Orioles reliever and ESPN commentator Gregg Olson, who felt that not letting Hector Neris start the inning had been damaging to Neris’ confidence as a pitcher.

Our own John Stolnis weighed in from the other side, and in response, Olson got to reference the issue that had clearly been stewing in his mind since March 31.

Behind any complaint about Kapler, there was always seemed to be a reference to the Milner incident lurking, something his detractors believed was a conversational knock-out punch. We all had fun with it. People couldn’t wait to bring it up.

But by May 16, the Phillies had played 37 more games since then, during which they had gone 23-14. It was certainly fair to cite the Hoby Milner warm-up kerfuffle as a reason one’s confidence had been shaken in the Phillies’ new manager. It was less fair to ignore all of the things that had occurred after it over the span of several weeks.

Months later, even as the Braves stomped through the Phillies on their way to the NL East title, the moment lived on, now as part of a sick burn.

There is a lot to say about Kapler. He has his supporters. He has more critics. He slows the game down, he over-manages, he overthinks, and it is perfectly reasonable to assert that there are several losses that happened this year because of his actions. Screwing up Milner’s entry into the game remains a moment that deserves to be laughed at in its absurdity and lack of precedence.

If you muddle a simple in-game act, flummoxing umpires and letting the baseball world laugh at you on the third day of a long season, it colors the perception of whatever happens next. But it’s a long season, and Gabe Kapler’s Phillies weren’t a bad team for most of it. Just one that operated in ways we hadn’t seen before.

Regardless of how you felt about him, Kapler set the tone early: Whether you’re transitioning to a new manager, figuring out a new roster, or trying to call in Hoby Milner from the bullpen, making a change can be difficult.

And people love to remember your mistakes.