As Trea Turner’s slump endures, so does the Phillies’ support

MIAMI — The indoor batting cage used by the visiting team at loanDepot Park is next to the manager’s office and adjacent to the clubhouse. Usually, the door is open. So, after a deflating 12-inning loss Wednesday night that took four hours and six minutes, one particular sound filled the Phillies clubhouse.

Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

Once the game ended at 10:47 p.m. ET, Trea Turner asked hitting coach Kevin Long if he’d throw to him in the cage. Turner paused in the middle of the session, at 11:10 p.m., to answer questions from three reporters for three minutes. “Obviously,” Turner said, “I’m the reason why we lost that game.” The comments were transmitted back to Philadelphia, aired on NBC Sports Philadelphia’s hot-take postgame show and dissected on social media.

Turner, as all of this happened, was still in full uniform. He returned to the batting cage. He continued to hit until midnight. Manager Rob Thomson waited with Turner. So did a team athletic trainer and the club’s traveling secretary. They held one bus back and, when Turner decided he had enough, the five men rode it back to the hotel. They returned to the ballpark a few hours later to prepare for Thursday’s afternoon game.

“Well, I certainly want guys — especially a 12 o’clock game after a night game — to be able to recover,” Thomson said. “But it’s hard to tell a guy not to work. You know? But he’s working at it. He cares. He’s trying everything he can to fix it.”

Thomson, sometime after that late-night hitting session, told Turner he would bat eighth in Thursday’s game. The manager said he did it to alternate righty and lefty batters all the way through the order. Turner had not hit eighth since 2015, in the 18th game of his rookie season. For a day, he became the most expensive No. 8 hitter in baseball history.

The Phillies signed Turner to a $300 million contract because, when right, he is one of the most dynamic players in the sport. He is hitting .235/.290/.368 and his fielding mistakes have mounted. He has never resembled the player the Phillies envisioned. There are expectations that come with one of the richest deals ever signed in baseball. Turner is not a bust four months into the 11-year contract. But he has disappointed and he is human. The mental toll of those unfulfilled expectations is real.

“I mean, he has to fight out of it,” Thomson said. “Maybe that’s harsh to say. I don’t know. But he will. I firmly believe that.”

Rob Thomson argues with an umpire on Trea Turner’s behalf after Turner was ejected from a game last month. (Eric Hartline / USA Today)

As the thwacks continued every 20 seconds or so late Wednesday night, only one noise penetrated the relative silence. It was Nick Castellanos. He yelled a few words of encouragement at Turner as he hacked away.

“He’s a competitor,” Castellanos said Thursday morning as some Bob Marley played on the clubhouse speakers. “And he’s very smart. So, as a teammate, the only thing I can do is: I’m here for whatever it is that he needs. I’m here. You only can help as much as they allow you to help.”

Castellanos, who fought his own demons last season as a high-priced signing, would know. There is a fine line.

“Because,” Castellanos said, “you definitely don’t want to be a person that’s like, ‘This is the answer. This is the answer. This is the answer.’ If you have a whole bunch of people telling you that — I mean, even me going through my struggles now. Right? Like, struggles become real when they start to become real to other people. Because now the media treats us different. The fans treat us different. Our families start to treat us different. They are the people that care, and they just want to know what’s going on.

“So then it’s more questions, more questions, more questions. You just start having to come up with answers. Now you’re getting it from the outside, and it just makes it worse. It’s baseball. It’s a hard game. But it’s a beautiful game. And we’re all addicted to it for some reason.”

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“You only can help as much as they allow you to help,” Nick Castellanos said of any struggling teammate. (Brad Mills / USA Today)

Turner, 30, is his harshest critic. He was not the reason the Phillies lost to the Marlins on Wednesday — they blew a five-run lead before he did not make a play he should have made in the 11th inning — but he owned it. He has, at numerous times this season, bemoaned all of the talk. It’s one thing, he says, to know what has to change. It’s another to actually do it.

There is something, Castellanos insisted, that must be said.

“Not a single person that is in the clubhouse with a Phillies jersey on has lost confidence in what he is able to do,” Castellanos told The Athletic. “We all know what he’s capable of doing. We’re just going to patiently wait until it happens. Because it will. It will happen. Capital W-I-L-L. When? I don’t know.”

This sentiment is echoed throughout the room.

“Everybody goes through hard times,” veteran closer Craig Kimbrel said. “I mean, I’ve been through plenty of hard times in this game. You just find your way through. Continuing to work and wanting it is how he’s going to do it. And he does. So, none of us are worried about Trea. Trea is going to hit a hot point and that’s the Trea we’re all waiting on. It’s going to happen. He’s a great ballplayer. I don’t think anybody in here, in this clubhouse, is worried about it.”

But the side effects of such a public failure are concerning to Thomson, the man charged with important lineup decisions. “Anytime a guy goes through struggles, you care about him,” Thomson said. “You worry about him a little bit.” Thomson sat Turner for a game last week. After Wednesday’s brutal loss, Thomson did not sound like someone who would consider an extended break for his shortstop.

However, on Thursday morning, Thomson did not dismiss the idea.

“I mean, that could happen,” Thomson said. “You know? I don’t know when that time is. I don’t know the answer to that. Does that mess a guy up even more? Basically, I just go off of his response to me about how he’s doing. And, sometimes, I take it out of a guy’s hands. But, again, when is that time?”

There is no right answer. Would Thomson try it this weekend when the Phillies return home to face Kansas City? Maybe these three games against one of the worst pitching staffs in the majors is a chance for Turner to get right.

Turner likes to play. He has twice led the league in plate appearances. He believes it is best to grind through it, and the Phillies are content to do that. The best remedy is a makeshift solution. If the Phillies can keep winning without significant contributions from Turner — and just make him one of the guys in 2023 — it could reduce the immediate pressure.

This is how Castellanos found peace in 2022.

“That helped me so much,” Castellanos said. “Even though I felt like at certain times I was drowning last year, my teammates going about everything the right way and still respecting the s — out of the game, got me and everybody to the postseason. Then, postseason baseball is just different. And that brings perspective back very fast.”

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Trea Turner reacts after hitting a grand slam in Team USA’s win over Venezuela in Miami. (Sam Navarro / USA Today)

Turner, who soared in March on a huge stage with Team USA during the World Baseball Classic and then announced on Instagram that his wife was expecting another boy, has not skirted his flop. He has answered every question. He has not made excuses. His teammates have, at times, found him almost too candid about how poorly he’s played.

It is Turner’s way of deflecting. There is no avoiding the stress that accompanies a high-profile slump like this.

“You cannot,” Castellanos siad. “You cannot. You can’t. It’s a real thing, dealing with that. This year of baseball is probably so different for him. He had his head to the floor, trying to make a dream happen. Working his ass off in high school, boom, I’m playing in college. I have to be the best college player. Oh, I’m in pro ball. I want to get to the big leagues. I get to the big leagues. Now I have to stay in the bigs. All right, now I’m here. I have to secure my family. Then, you get that. All of a sudden, you are handed the responsibility of being a ‘captain’ of a franchise that already has superstar players.

“When you get handed the bag that he’s been handed, that comes with a lot of responsibility. Whether it’s from your life standpoint, with family — that’s not just a small raise. You know what I’m saying? It sucks that salaries in sports are made public. They shouldn’t. They’re made public and we are more looked at like objects. Trea deserves what he got because of what he’s accomplished. And, now because it’s everybody’s f — ing business, the expectations are that much greater. ‘He’s making this much and he should do this.’ It’s frustrating.”

But that’s how it is, and it’s a good life that Castellanos and his teammates have made for themselves. Castellanos knows how all of this sounds. But he believes in fighting for his teammate. All of the Phillies do. They spend countless hours together and, Castellanos admitted, it’s hard to know what a guy is really thinking. What he’s really feeling.

“We know professional Trea,” Castellanos said. “We are his teammates. Trea has a completely other life — (one) that is more valuable than his job — that he is also dealing with. And I don’t know things that could or could not be affecting him. As a teammate, to also pretend like we ever know the entire picture, is a little bit arrogant.”

When the Phillies sealed a 4-2 win Thursday afternoon to take the four-game series from the Marlins, Turner slapped hands with Bryson Stott. Turner flicked his gum to somewhere in left field. He joined the handshake line. He went 0-for-3 and he fielded all of the balls hit his way. For a day, he was just one of the guys, and that was OK.

(Top photo: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)

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