Dave Roberts opened the door to his office and descended a flight of steps toward the visitors’ batting cage at Citizens Bank Park. Inside the room awaited the position players of the Dodgers. Roberts called them together Wednesday afternoon to deliver a message.
The address lasted 15 minutes. His tone was stern. His voice carried beyond the cage and into the hallway leading to the diamond.
Roberts chuckled when asked about the meeting.
“What meeting?” he said before his bullpen imploded in a 7-5 loss in front of 20,175 fans.
Perhaps he should have spoken to his relievers.
The offense was productive Wednesday, but the bullpen was flammable. Ross Stripling served up two homers in the seventh. Luis Avilan loaded the bases in the eighth, and Brandon Morrow permitted a two-run single by Phillies outfielder Aaron Altherr to send the Dodgers to their fourth consecutive loss.
“If you’re looking at the entire body of work, I thought there was a lot of good things,” Roberts said. “We just didn’t get it done on the back end of the game.”
The pregame message from Roberts did not land immediately, but the Dodgers did show signs of life Wednesday. Somnolent for six innings, aside from a solo homer by Chris Taylor, they came alive in the seventh. Chase Utley catalyzed the group by coming off the bench with a leadoff triple. Enrique Hernandez tied the score with an RBI double. Cody Bellinger gave his team the lead with a two-out, two-run double.
The advantage did not last long. Stripling made sure of that. And after the Dodgers tied it a 5-5 in the top of the eighth, Avilan and Morrow combined to waste the effort in the bottom of the inning.
“We’re grinding right now,” starting pitcher Alex Wood said. “We’re really grinding. Hopefully we’ll finish this series with a win tomorrow and take off from there.”
The team suffered an additional scare. Corey Seager fouled a ball off his ankle and limped out of the clubhouse after the game. Seager said an X-ray examination came back negative.
The timing of Roberts’ remarks hinted at the malaise infecting the Dodgers during the past few weeks. Roberts does not gather his players together often. Teams on the verge of clinching a division title rarely require rhetorical encouragement. But the 2017 Dodgers are a unique bunch, a group who ran away with the National League West yet have stumbled toward the finish line.
As he spoke to his hitters, Roberts mentioned the necessity of unity, the importance of paying attention to detail and an acknowledgment of the chance at history that awaits them next month. The Dodgers have not reached the World Series since 1988. Before this September, in which the team has gone 5-15, they looked like the prohibitive favorite to represent the National League in the Fall Classic.
“It was like, this is what we’ve got,’” Roberts said. “We’ve got 11 days left. Let’s band together, and let’s understand what’s at stake. Because this is a golden opportunity. At the end of the season, when that last out is made, we can all look back and know we left everything we possibly could on the field for each other.”
The Dodgers came to the ballpark prepared to spill champagne and celebrate a fifth consecutive N.L. West crown. The clubhouse attendants strung up plastic covering around the room. The team needed to defeat the Phillies, then hope Arizona lost to San Diego to secure the division. They planned to watch the Diamondbacks together as a group.
There was no need for a viewing party.
Like Pedro Baez a night earlier, Stripling spoiled the starter’s evening. He wrecked six effective outings from Wood, who limited the Phillies to a pair of runs in six innings.
Down two in the third, the Dodgers cut the deficit in half with Taylor’s solo shot. Utley woke the team up in the seventh. Hernandez tied it. After Justin Turner was intentionally walked, Bellinger ripped the go-ahead double to right off Phillies left-handed reliever Hoby Milner.
Roberts asked Stripling to keep the lead safe. Stripling is one of several candidates vying to make the postseason bullpen. Baez may have pitched his way off the roster. Stripling isn’t helping his cause. Only three days earlier, he gave up a game-deciding three-run homer to Washington slugger Ryan Zimmerman.
Stripling faced less imposing competition Wednesday. It did not matter. He walked the first batter he faced. He hung a curveball at Altherr’s waist and another in the same area to Tommy Joseph. Both were crushed.
“We need him to get going and pitch those leverage innings,” Roberts said.
In the eighth, Austin Barnes took a walk, advanced to second on a wild pitch, took third on a passed ball and scored on a fielder’s choice from Utley. The Dodgers somehow exceeded Philadelphia’s pitching incompetence in the bottom of the frame.
Avilan issued a leadoff walk. He fielded a bunt and threw the ball into center field. After an intentional walk, Morrow arrived to face Altherr, who has homered in every game of the series. This time he produced a two-run single. The clinch would have to wait.
“You’ve got to tip your hat,” Roberts said. “We have to find a way to win a baseball game.”