WASHINGTON — Around 4:30 p.m. Saturday, in the 157th game of the season, with a playoff spot in sight against the worst team in the league, a backup infielder went to the mound to take the final out of the eighth inning with the Phillies .
More like a fever dream.
But life moves pretty fast, especially in the final leg of a baseball playoff chase. A few minutes past 8 p.m. after the impotent Phillies absorbed a 13-4 thump in the opener of a day-night doubleheader and slipped into a tie for the final National League wild card, Kyle Schwarber was circling the bases for their fifth home run of an 8-2 loss of the Washington Nationals.
Who knows what Sunday will bring? Except of course more rain.
“All year I’ve been saying they’re resilient and they’ll come back and fight,” Phillies interim manager Rob Thomson said between games. “And they do.”
OK, so here’s the state of affairs: With four games remaining, the Phillies have a half-game lead over the Brewers pending the result of Saturday night’s Milwaukee game against the Miami Marlins. But the Phillies also own a tiebreaker over the Brewers since they won the season series.
Any combination of four Phillies wins or Brewers losses sends the Phillies into the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
It didn’t have to be that difficult. According to FanGraphs, with 20 games remaining and a 96.3 percent chance of making the playoffs on Sept. 14, the Phillies were 4½ games ahead of the Brewers. They then lost 11 of 16 games to make it nearly a dead heat in the waning days of the season.
A swaying Jenga tower would seem less precarious.
The weather also plays a role now. Teams were supposed to play a doubleheader on Friday, but the nightcap was washed away. The teams played two games on Saturday, but the prognosis for Sunday is ominous.
If the Phillies and Nationals are unable to complete their streak, they may have to meet in Washington on Thursday, a day after the end of the regular season and a day before Game 1 of the best-of-three wild card round.
Then log the doubleheader opening blowout as one of the Phillies’ costliest losses of the season. It was also one of her more humbling ones.
Kyle Gibson gave up seven runs in six innings, including homers against Luke Voit and Joey Meneses. But the defense didn’t do him any favors. Third baseman Alec Bohm, in particular, attempted to smash Meneses’ shot over the line, converting it into a three-run double.
“Normally he’s going to make this game,” Thomson said. “He just got a bad report for a transfer, hookball. He just got a late break to do it. He should have put it down if he could.”
Considering the stakes, it felt like a mistake that happens to players who press. The Phillies have made these mistakes in abundance over the past few weeks and years.
“They want to win games and get in. That’s not panic for me,” Thomson said. “I don’t feel panic. I can feel a group that really wants to make the playoffs.”
The Phillies sure have a fun way of showing it.
It helped facing Nationals right-hander Tommy Romero in the nightcap. Romero made his fourth major league appearance and second start, and set a Nationals record by conceding five home runs. Schwarber set the tone by hitting the game’s second pitch into the second deck in right field.
Bohm, Brandon Marsh and Matt Vierling went deep in the third inning to build a 6-0 lead before Schwarber hit his league-leading 44th homer in the fourth, surpassing Chuck Klein in 1929 for most homers in a season by a Phillies outfielder.
The Phillies also got an excellent points start from Noah Syndergaard, who returned to the rotation and shut out the Nationals for 5⅔ innings.
So, no, all was not lost when Nick Maton went on the mound nine runs down in the first game. But the Phillies better, they sink no worse than that in the next four games.
“Of course, when it’s late and we’re making our own destiny, it’s frustrating,” Gibson said. “But still, when we win the games we should win, we control our own destiny.
“If we get going here and get a bit more consistent and are the team we know we are, we still see our chances as good.”
With an out in the first inning of the first game, Bryce Harper communicated with Schwarber to stage a double steal that resulted in a run.
Harper lifted off first base to draw a throw from catcher Riley Adams. As Adams threw for second, Schwarber ran home and hit a throw back at the plate.
It worked. But it was risky, and Thomson didn’t sound too enthusiastic.
“I trust them,” Thomson said. “But we’ll talk about it.”
After allowing four straight home runs on July 2, Gibson had a 2.80 ERA and gave up four total home runs in his next nine starts. In six starts since then, he’s had a 9.73 ERA and allowed seven home runs.
Over time, Gibson may have answers as to what went wrong. At the moment he is helpless.
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“I don’t think the pitching coaches [know] neither,” said Gibson, who will be a free agent after the season. “I sat and talked [director of pitching Brian] chaplain and [pitching coach] Caleb Cotham, the catchers, everyone.
“It’s been a frustrating month I think for almost every one of my starts. I do not know why. That was probably the most frustrating thing, sitting there doing these deep dives and just getting nothing.”