Gabe Kapler batted his pitcher eighth this season in 12 of his first 24 games as a major-league manager. The thinking, which he outlined throughout spring training, was simple: The ninth place in the lineup should not be an automatic out, but a spot reserved for a batter who reaches base at a high rate in front of the top of the order.
The Phillies, Kapler said last week, had "a couple of specific athletes" who they thought could handle the ninth spot. And J.P. Crawford, who batted ninth 12 times through April, was one of them. But Crawford started the season with a .188 average and a .246 on-base percentage. He was more of an automatic out than an on-base machine before he missed all of May because of a strained forearm.
Kapler abandoned his lineup strategy, and Sunday was the 23rd straight game with the Phillies pitcher batting last.
"Some of those guys are working through some things," Kapler said of his specific athletes. "So it just doesn't seem quite as advantageous as it did when we were expecting those guys to be at their best."
Crawford went 2-for-4 in Sunday's win, and he batted seventh for the third time in four starts since being activated from the disabled list. He has reached base four times in his 14 plate appearances since being inserted back into the lineup. It is an extremely small sample, but it at least offers some hope for Crawford.
The Phillies will give Crawford close to everyday at-bats at third base as Maikel Franco sits on the bench. They need to know what they have in Crawford, who spent nearly five years as their top prospect. And in a strange twist, it will actually be a good sign if Crawford can work his way down in the order.
"If I see my name in the lineup, at the end of the day, I'm happy I'm playing. I don't care where I hit," Crawford said. "Wherever they put me at, I'm going to try my hardest and help my team win a ballgame that night. Whether I'm seventh, I'm ninth, first, second, third, I don't care where I'm at. I just want to be in the lineup every day."
Crawford gave the Phillies plenty of confidence to believe that he was their prototypical ninth hitter. He reached base in 35 percent of his at-bats between double A and triple A. He struck out almost as much as he walked and had one of the best plate disciplines in the farm system.
He could start his first full season, the Phillies thought, by getting on base from an almost-pressure-free ninth spot. The first month of the season did not go as planned. But perhaps Crawford just needed more than 20 starts to adjust to major-league pitching.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "The confidence never dropped. I was just having some tough breaks."
The Phillies do not need a leadoff hitter. Cesar Hernandez, who has batted first in 62 of the team's 63 games, has seemed to be the lone batter to reach base during the team's ongoing slump. But the Phillies could use a spark at the end of their lineup, a batter who could reach base in front of their leadoff hitter. And that is where Crawford could soon find himself once Kapler decides again to bat his "specific athletes" ninth.