ATLANTA — Gabe Kapler left the Phillies dugout Thursday afternoon, walked to the mound with a five-run lead, and took the ball from Aaron Nola after his top pitcher threw just 68 pitches.
The Phillies manager was not aware then that his curious decision would trigger a crushing 8-5 loss to the Braves on Opening Day. And Kapler, a few hours after he walked to the mound to lift Nola in just the sixth inning, said he would do it all over again.
Kapler called on five relievers. Each of them failed. The game was tied in the eighth and the loss was sealed in the ninth when Hector Neris allowed a three-run homer with two outs to Nick Markakis, a brutal blow to begin the Kapler Era.
The new manager asked his bullpen, a unit the Phillies were confident they fortified this winter, to preserve a 5-0 lead and record the game's final 11 outs. He removed Nola because he was confident the relievers could finish the game.
Kapler is determined to rely heavily on his bullpen and not overexert his starting rotation. Thursday was a proclamation that Kapler would stick to his conviction.
“Look, tonight, the decisions didn't work out in our favor,” Kapler said. “But I'm very confident that over a long period of time that they will.”
Nola was excellent, using his curveball to keep Atlana off balance as he allowed just three hits. He used the curveball for two of his three strikeouts and never had more than one runner on base. His one bit of trouble came in the sixth when Ender Inciarte led off with a double. Nola missed his spot, catcher Andrew Knapp said. But the pitcher responded by retiring the next batter. He looked to still be in control as Kapler left the dugout.
“You just want to go as long as you can. When you're a competitor, you feel like you can get guys out in any situation in any part of the game,” Nola said. “I had a good bit left.”
The Phillies built that five-run lead with a four-run rally in the fifth. Cesar Hernandez led off with a homer. Rhys Hoskins, who had an RBI double in the first, reached on a hit by pitch with two outs. Aaron Altherr and J.P. Crawford walked to load the bases and Maikel Franco scored Hoskins on a bases-loaded walk. Knapp roped a two-run single as the Phillies scored four runs on just two hits. A season-opening rout seemed to be forming, but the good vibes wouldn't even make it past the bottom of the inning.
“It was a tough loss for the team. I mean, guys aren't giving up runs on purpose,” Nola said. “I would think we will come out [Friday] and battle again. We have 161 more games, so we're going to come out tomorrow ready to compete.”
Hoby Milner allowed a two-run homer to Freddie Freeman, the batter Kapler did not allow Nola to face. Milner did not allow a homer last season to a left-hander and Kapler had a “high degree of conviction” that he would get the out.
Adam Morgan allowed a homer to start the eighth. Edubray Ramos, who was only pitching because Pat Neshek was out with an injury, relieved Morgan and threw a fastball that slipped past Knapp for a passed ball to score a run. Preston Tucker then tied the game with a single off Ramos.
The five-run lead was erased. And soon the game would be over. Kapler's debut was spoiled by a curious decision.
“We are all very competitive people. It's difficult to lose on Opening Day like that,” Kapler said. “I also believe in the long view we have. We had an incredible camp with an incredible amount of positive energy. I expect our club to come back [Friday] with that same degree of positive energy. This is going to be one baseball game out of 162 baseball games and I am still extremely confident that we have the pieces in that room to win a ton of them.”