Twenty-four hours before Gabe Kapler watched his team steamroll the San Francisco Giants, 11–0, he stood inside the visiting manager’s office at Nationals Park and tried to explain how everything went so wrong.
Yes, Sunday’s starting pitcher, Jake Arrieta, had given up a solo home run in the second inning but had otherwise been cruising. Yes, Kapler had pulled him from the on-deck circle in the seventh inning, pinch-hitting Nick Williams and moving on to the Philadelphia bullpen, in an attempt to get his team on the board. Yes, the team then did precisely that, putting up three runs in the seventh and an insurance run in the eighth. And yes, that bullpen shortly thereafter crumbled before his eyes, coughing up the lead and giving the Nats their first walk-off victory of 2018. With his thumbs hooked through his belt loops after the game, Kapler was circumspect: “Obviously, our bullpen should come in and throw strikes to the best of their ability,” he said. “That’s one thing that they know they have to do and it didn’t happen today.” NBC Sports Philadelphia summarized the outing: “For first time, Gabe Kapler looks frustrated.”
Arrieta was less forgiving. He understood why he had been pulled—“It’s tough to come out of the game, but you understand why you have to,” he told reporters—but grasping the calculus did little to soothe the pain of the loss. As he turned to address the Philly press corps by his locker after the game, he noticed several reporters had wandered away to talk to other teammates while they waited for the starter to get dressed. Arrieta loudly whistled at them. The locker room fell quiet. “Let’s fucking go,” he snapped.
If Sunday’s loss in Washington, scarcely a quarter of the way through the regular season, felt unusually stinging, Kapler had an explanation: It was a playoff game. Asked afterward if the game had the feel of something much later in the year, Kapler agreed. “We thought of it that way in the dugout, I think as a unit,” he said. “Our players were playing that way and we were thinking about the game that way, that this was a game where we were going to do everything we could to win it. It was definitely a playoff atmosphere out there.”
The truth is that for Kapler, most every game might fairly be considered a playoff game. He manages accordingly, his finger as heavy on the trigger—which is to say the bullpen phone—as any manager in baseball. His is a strategy of constant adjustments, an occasionally exhausting parade of incremental shifts and pitching changes that we’ve rarely seen before the fall. For Kapler, this cutthroat-edness feels obvious, if not outright necessary: He promised Philadelphia fans—to say nothing of team brass—the real thing back in March, when he followed up a brutal early loss with a pledge that the team would make it to the 2018 postseason.
The Phillies now sit just a half-game behind the Braves—who, incidentally, had the second-best record in the National League before being swept over the weekend by the same San Francisco squad that the Phils made such easy work of Monday and again Tuesday, in a 4–2 effort in which San Francisco led for all of a half-inning.
But can you really make it through 162 straight—or more, should everything go according to plan—playoff games? And even if you could, would you want to?
You have, by now, probably heard some things about Gabe Kapler. He has, on at least one occasion, been spotted flying on a commercial airline with a dozen eggs in his lap. He enjoys a fine fedora. He says that there is nothing—literally nothing—that he could not live without. There are 108 mentions of eggs on his personal blog, as well as a hearty endorsement of the virtues of tanning your testicles. (“If you want to be your strongest, get some sun on your boys. And by boys, I mean your testicles.”) He recently amended a much-repeated anecdote about his tendency to spit ice cream into a cup in lieu of swallowing—to get the taste but not the poor nutritional value, see—to say that this happened only once, as he monastically fended off a craving with his soon-to-be wife (now ex-wife).
The calls for Kapler’s head have quieted down in Philadelphia, if not exactly gone away. The rookie manager’s first games at the helm were marred by defensive flailing and ugly losses. In one particularly disastrous lowlight, he opted to use a reliever without first allowing the pitcher to warm up. In all, he used 21 pitchers across the team’s first 28 innings of the season, and was heartily booed at his first home game. The caricature of Kapler as a stat-addled schoolmarm persists. Just take this representative mean tweet, the sort that Kapler could end up reading in a viral video if the Phillies make it into October: “Gabe Kapler is a nerd who needs a pocket protector built into his uni. What a looser lifetime 220 hitter with no coaching experience. Please just go away.” However, it’s hard to argue with results. After the boos at the Citizens Bank Park opener, his Phillies went on a 13-3 run over the next 16 games.
The first time I saw Kapler up close, I thought he was a player. Perched on the bench of the Nats Park visitor’s dugout in animated conversation with another reporter, he wore what might have been the tightest T-shirt I have ever seen. This could be more a product of Kapler’s physique than the apparel itself: He possesses, among other things, what The Washington Post recently characterized as “Popeye forearms.” On Sunday night’s episode of Westworld, one of the human visitors to the robot wonderland gets suspicious of the flesh-and-blood bona fides of a potential hook-up after she removes his shirt and finds chiseled six-pack abs. “You certainly look like one of the park’s offerings,” she says with suspicion. I do not know how to describe Kapler better than to say that he, too, looks like a Westworld host.
Sunday’s loss in Washington was, in some ways, a collision of different pieces of Kapler’s strategy. It’s also maybe more representative of 2018’s obstacles than a beatdown of the lowly Giants, given the Phils will see the divisional-rival Nationals 16 more times before the regular season wraps up. Kapler has emphasized dragging out at-bats however possible, and so the Phillies did, taking a fiery, 15-strikeout start by Max Scherzer to 111 pitches and forcing the Nationals to sit him after just two batters in the seventh. But it was also a bit of hyper jockeying that narrowed and then cost the Phillies their lead: A heavy left-leaning shift in the eighth inning allowed the Nats to begin their comeback with a base hit through a hole in right field.
Kapler has resisted, mostly, making the frenzied pitching changes that incurred so much wrath early in the season—but he remains as antsy as ever. On Friday, he returned to the visiting manager’s office after the series opener with three pens still tucked on the inside of his collar, ready to scribble further notations and hatch new plans even after the game had ended in a loss, 7–3. A plastic knife sat in front of his computer for some unknown purpose.
Kapler has told us from the get-go that he intended to white-knuckle his way through the 2018 season. To watch a Phillies game this season is to feel your heart palpitate and your blood pressure rise, in a way that feels desperately unsustainable. But, well, if you’re worried about heart health—might I recommend a dozen eggs?