PHILADELPHIA >> Pennant races are not indicated on the schedule, not limited to a time and a place, not able to be forecast, not even with every newer analytic. They exist, Gabe Kapler knows, only in the souls and the guts and the consciences of the participants.
“I can remember back to being in pennant races and feeling like every game was Game 7 of the World Series,” the Phillies’ manager said. “And if you came back in after a loss, it was crushing. And you had to remind yourself that it happens.”
The Phillies are in a pennant race, chasing the Atlanta Braves and trying not to stress about the Washington Nationals. They are in one with players working out of position, with creaky defense, with a rookie closer, with such insufficient starting pitching depth that they occasionally must trust Ranger Suarez.
That’s what Kapler wanted them to remember as they swung into Citizens Bank Park for a homestand this week, even if it was mid-August, not mid-September. And it was particularly what he wanted them to feel around 7 Thursday night, after they lost Game 1 of a doubleheader by 20 runs to the New York Mets, yet still had a chance to make a small standings move.
Already, it matters. Indeed, it is not guaranteed to ever matter more.
Not a particularly effective road team, which is to say they tend to tremble whenever they board a team bus, the Phils have provided a captivating, satisfying summer at home, that Game 1 insult Thursday not included. That’s what has made their six-game homestand, including a “home” game Sunday in Williamsport, so vital. They could not permit the Braves to create separation in the NL East, then expect to roar to the front again, as they did in 2007, when they were seven games behind the Mets on Sept. 12 but won the division anyway.
They have to know that they have an eight-game road trip through Atlanta and Colorado late in September, and that they will need to be in a position to catch or suppress the Braves in the final three games of the season in Citizens Bank Park. So far, the homestand has been rough, with the Phils having won only two of their first four. But they did play the rampaging Red Sox tough, winning one game and losing the other by a run. And they did finish Thursday with a 9-6 win over the Mets, recovering from 24-4 Game 1 loss and regaining some of the dignity they had surrendered when Kapler ordered Roman Quinn and Scott Kingery to spend the final three innings of that first game throwing such slow pitches that the radar guns weren’t even buzzing.
“It’s a strategy decision because we’re trying to make the playoffs, we’re trying to win the National League East, and the game was out of hand,” Kapler said between games. “We now have a bullpen we can use effectively in Game 2 of this doubleheader.
“Down the road, we’re going to look back on this and it’s just going to be a time when we got our (butts) kicked and had position players on the mound.”
How far down the road? This season? The next? The Phillies have been doing the down-the-road stumble since 2012. This year, though, Matt Klentak gave them the necessary tools, spending big on Carlos Santana and Jake Arrieta, then aggressively renting Wilson Ramos, Asdrubal Cabrera and Justin Bour. Another starting pitcher would have helped, but at least Klentak didn’t channel Ed Wade and supply just a couple of bullpen pieces.
They have enough to win the division, yet had lost five of eight with that three-hour afternoon blast of incompetence Thursday.
“If you came back in after a loss, it was crushing and you had to remind yourself that it happens,” Kapler remembered, of his playing days. “You’ve got 45 games or whatever left to play, and you’re probably going to lose a couple of them. So you try to keep that in perspective. But every one of them feels critically important.”
The Phillies returned to their clubhouse Thursday after their worst since 1929 and knew they had another game to play.
“We are razor-sharp focused,” Kapler said, “on winning that game.”
They scored six runs in the first two innings and they won, inching within 1.5 games of the lead in the division, the crowd humming as the Braves’ 5-3 loss to Colorado flashed on the right-field scoreboard.
“Oh, I hope it didn’t take this long for you to feel that,” Rhys Hoskins, who homered in both games, had said the other day. “We were in first place for almost a month, going back and forth with two pretty good teams in our division. And we know we play those guys a lot coming down the stretch.
“I think as a competitor, that’s all you can really ask for.”
As one who is in a pennant race, he should know, in his gut, in his conscience, in his soul.
Contact Jack McCaffery @email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery