MIAMI — It had been three weeks since the Phillies last lost back-to-back games. So, after they got thumped by a 14-2 margin over the weekend by the Atlanta Braves, the inquiring mind of Gabe Kapler was curious to gauge the mood of his young players when they reported for work here Monday.
What the rookie manager found was, in his words, a group of players that appeared "pumped up and ready to go and legitimately seeming inspired."
Kapler was so taken by the clubhouse atmosphere before the opener of a three-game series against the Miami Marlins that he made a point to bring it up, unprompted, during his pregame media session. In part, he attributed it to the man who would take the mound a few hours later. Jake Arrieta was due to pitch, and whenever the Phillies give the ball to their veteran ace, it's a feeling that Kapler called "invigorating."
This time, though, it was a big-time downer.
Arrieta got hit often and hard. The Marlins knocked him out in the fourth inning after eight hits, five of which went for doubles. And the Phillies lost, 8-4, marking their first three-game skid of the season. Since they swept a four-game series at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates, they have dropped five of seven games.
"In basketball, you give the ball to the best player and chances are that team wins. This game is a different story," Arrieta said, his mind perhaps on the 76ers' Game 1 loss. "You need a collective effort from a lot of guys to win the ballgame. We had some great at-bats, played some good defense. I didn't do my part today."
Indeed, it was a far cry from Arrieta's previous two starts. He overpowered the Pirates two weeks ago, striking out 10 batters and allowing only an infield hit. Last week, he battled brief spells of control issues and gave up only soft contact en route to outdueling Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke.
This time, though, Arrieta lacked his usual command. He consistently fell behind in counts, and when he had to throw pitches in the strike zone, the Marlins teed off. He needed 28 pitches to get through a second inning in which he gave up only one run, then allowed the first four batters to reach base in the third inning. Derek Dietrich and Brian Anderson scorched back-to-back RBI doubles, part of a four-run rally that put the Phillies in a 5-2 hole.
"You have like one or two of those a year where you feel like you're trying to find your way through it from the get-go," Arrieta said. "Everything was pretty normal going in. I felt good physically. Just timing, I was a tick late or a tick early and couldn't find a middle ground."
And yet, the Phillies still had a chance in the seventh inning.
Trailing by three runs with the bases loaded, Carlos Santana hit a sinking line drive to right field. Anderson made a diving catch, but Cesar Hernandez neglected to tag up at third base and was unable to score.
"I feel that I had a big lead and then that secondary lead was too big, so by the time I tried to head back, I thought it was too late," Hernandez said through a team translator. "But I knew I should have done better."
Said Kapler: "It's a play that Cesar can read better, there's no question about it. Cesar knows it."
It was a costly mistake in what could prove to be a costly loss. If the Phillies truly want to make the playoffs, beating up on lowly teams like the Marlins could make the difference.