This is not the first impression Gabe Kapler wanted to make.
The Phillies’ Opening Day, 8-5, walk-off, come-from-ahead loss to the Braves in Atlanta was awful. As it was happening, it felt like slow motion torture. The Phils had a fun, Opening Day win firmly in their grasp, and then, through a serious of painful managerial decisions and horrific bullpen work, an exciting win in the first game of the season turned into one of the most crushing losses the fanbase has suffered since the rebuild began.
But in time, the loss will fade. The Phillies will play other games. They will win some of those games and they will lose some of those games, hopefully more of the former than the latter. However, there will be a lasting impression from the team’s Opening Day meltdown, one that will be hard to erase in just a few days.
With the Philly fanbase, first impressions are everything and, once established, they are almost impossible to remove from the city’s consciousness. In that regard, the new manager of the Phillies had himself the worst first game he could have possibly had.
People were already a little skeptical of Kapler, a former player now managing a Major League Baseball team for the first time in his life. Fans know him as an “analytics manager,” one who prefers to use data to help him make decisions, and in Thursday’s loss to the Braves, Kapler used that data to make some unorthodox moves. Whether the process was right or wrong, in the end, every one of those moves backfired spectacularly.
Listening to local sports talk radio and spending even a little time on Philly Twitter will tell you all you need to know about Kapler’s standing among casual Phils fans, and it’s not good. And the problem, of course, is all about timing.
If this game had happened in the middle of June, fans would have been disappointed but likely would have chalked it up to just another unfortunate loss that probably could have been prevented with smarter managing. But this loss was under the brighter spotlight of Opening Day. More eyeballs were likely on this game than any other Phils’ Opening Day game since 2012.
And this is their first impression of Gabe Kapler.
It takes a lot to get Philadelphia sports fans to change their minds about someone once they’re made, but it is possible. Ricky Watters was hated because of his “For who, for what?” comments immediately after his first game with the Eagles. Charlie Manuel was seen as a rube who was too dumb to manage a big league team when he first started and Doug Pederson was seen by some as unqualified for the job, a placeholder for some real coach yet to come. Happily, for these three, their first impressions were wiped away by winning.
That’s now the challenge that lies in front of Gabe Kapler. Is it fair? Absolutely not. This was one game out of 162 the team will play this year. What happened on Opening Day was not solely Kapler’s fault. A big league bullpen should be able to secure 11 outs and lock down a 5-0 win against a poor-hitting Braves team. Had the ‘pen done it’s job, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
But Kapler made the unorthodox and, in my opinion, incorrect decision to pull Aaron Nola early from the game. Everyone reacted the same way at the time, and their intuitions were proven correct when Hoby Milner gave up the two-run bomb to Freddie Freeman in the 6th and the team imploded in the following innings.
Because all that happened, Philly fans now have an unfavorable first impression of Kapler, and it’s going to take some winning in order to shake it.
Luckily, the Phillies play 161 more games this season, so there’s time. On Episode 184 of Hittin’ Season, I talked to The Good Phight’s Paul Boye about the Opening Day loss and whether Kapler will be given the chance to make a second impression on the fanbase. Also, Corey Seidman of NBC Sports Philadelphia stops by to offer his thoughts on the 2018 season.
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