Phils still learning how to win big games
Ruben Amaro Jr. has seen this before. A few times, actually. In 2003, the Phillies led the wild-card race by a halfgame before losing seven of their last eight and missing the playoffs for the ninth year in a row. In 2006, they went into the final week with a half-game lead but finished 3-4 and extended the postseason drought to 12 years.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the Phillies finally kicked down the door to October, and it wouldn’t have happened then either if not for a 13-4 finishing kick and a Big Apple-size collapse by the New York Mets.
The point is, it’s not easy to close the deal, especially for a team that hasn’t done it before. Winning, like hitting a breaking ball, must be learned. And after wilting down the stretch in 2018 and 2019, the Phillies are still in class, perilously close to an ignominious three-peat entering the season’s fateful weekend.
“I think there’s real, tangible — I don’t know how you measure it — experience in big-game situations that really means something,” said Amaro, the former
Phillies general manager. “Going through it, having the feel of what it takes to play when the game is on the line, when your season’s on the line, I think it’s a critical part of the growth of an organization and the growth of a player.”
In that case, the Phillies are still growing.
They haven’t been to the playoffs since 2011. Nobody is left from that team. Of the 28 players on the active roster, only nine have appeared in a postseason game; six have advanced beyond the first round; two — injured starter Jake Arrieta and struggling reliever Brandon Workman — own a World Series ring.
“Winning baseball is something I think you need to learn,” said Phillies manager Joe Girardi, a fourtime World Series champion. “It’s learning how to control everything around you — your surroundings, your emotions in big situations, being prepared all the time for a situation that might come up, being able to discipline yourself when you are beat up and tired. I do believe you have to learn all of that.”
It should begin in the minor leagues, Girardi said. Although the emphasis there is rightly on player development, he noted the value of experiencing a pennant race down on the farm, where winning can become part of a player’s DNA.
The Phillies were cognizant of that as they rebuilt. Andrew Knapp, Roman Quinn, and Zach Eflin went to the Eastern League finals in 2015 with Reading. Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery and Quinn made the playoffs with Reading in 2016. Spencer Howard threw a postseason no-hitter at Low-a Lakewood in 2018 and joined Alec Bohm and Mickey Moniak in the postseason with Reading last year.
But there’s nothing quite like a big-league playoff push.
Amaro points to the mid2000s Phillies. After collapsing in 2003, they finished six games out of the wild card in 2004, one game back in 2005, and three games short in 2006. By 2007, many folks doubted they would ever get over the mountain.
“But we were playing important games,” Amaro said. “In ’05 we got close. In ’06 we got close. In ’07 we got in the playoffs and guys learned. It was like, ‘OK, I know what this is like now.’ All that stuff is really valuable.”
From a distance, then, Amaro wondered in 2018 if the Phillies did a disservice to Kingery and other young players by reducing their playing time after acquiring veterans Asdrubal Cabrera and Jose Bautista for an unexpected playoff run.
Even many of the Phillies’ best players — notably catcher J.T. Realmuto, coaces Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler, and infielder Jean Segura — haven’t successfully navigated a playoff race.
“Man, I’m waiting for that moment,” Segura said recently. “I’d love to be in the playoffs and having a playoff game because I never did it in my career. I think it’s time to go there.”
Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper, right, celebrates his second homer of the game with J.T. Realmuto on Wednesday.
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