Phils still learn­ing how to win big games

The Times-Tribune - - SPORTS - SCOTT LAUBER cov­ers the Phillies for the Philadel­phia In­quirer.

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.”

NICK WASS / as­so­ci­ated press

Philadel­phia’s Bryce Harper, right, cel­e­brates his sec­ond homer of the game with J.T. Real­muto on Wed­nes­day.

SCOTT LAUBER Com­men­tary

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