For the first time in nearly a decade, summer in Philadelphia looked like it would belong to the Phillies. The lineup they spent all winter bolstering had a first-place lead on Memorial Day. The third-place Nationals were 10 games behind. But you don’t pop champagne on Memorial Day.
The Phillies spent the Fourth of July falling to third place. They now trail both the Nationals and Braves. They are 6 1/2 games behind first-place Atlanta, and that distance could become greater this weekend when the Mets start Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard. The Phillies seemed to lose their hold of summer. Don’t look now, but the Eagles start training camp on July 25.
“We’ll turn the page quickly,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “One game in isolation is not going to kill us. We have to raise our level of play. We’re workers. We’re fighters. We do this as a team. We stand together. Tomorrow, we’ll come out fighting.”
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The Phillies invested nearly half of a billion dollars this winter to build a team they believed was a playoff contender. They signed Bryce Harper, traded for J.T. Realmuto, extended Aaron Nola, added David Robertson to the bullpen, picked up Andrew McCutchen, and flipped Carlos Santana for Jean Segura. After the dust cleared, the Phillies had committed $475 million and addressed nearly every position on their roster. They did almost everything except add a starting pitcher.
The Phillies watched their starting rotation stumble down the stretch last season as the team fell out of first place and then decided to run it back. They passed up on giving Patrick Corbin a sixth year, but also declined shorter pacts with pitchers like Charlie Morton, Lance Lynn, and J.A. Happ.
If the half-a-billion spending spree does not net a playoff spot, the team’s neglect to add a starting pitcher will be near the top of reasons why. The team’s starting rotation has the National League’s highest home-run rate, third-highest hard contact rate, the fourth-most runs allowed, and the sixth-worst ERA.
Instead of an upgrade, the Phillies placed their trust in Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Jerad Eickhoff. Pivetta was sent to triple A, then returned for two good starts but has a 7.33 ERA in four starts since. Velasquez has switched from starter to reliever to starter. Eickhoff is on the injured list.
Corbin was inconsistent early in the year but has been a big reason why the Nationals have passed the Phillies in the standings. Morton, Lynn, and Happ have not been perfect but they would have been upgrades. If the Phillies miss the playoffs, we’ll look back at June when their rotation had a 5.08 ERA and the first-place lead slipped away. That fall could have been avoided in November and December.
The Phillies fell to third place on Thursday night with a 12-6 pounding from the Braves. The Phillies built a quick lead, but Zach Eflin gave it right back. Gabe Kapler said Eflin’s night changed when the game’s first batter worked a tiring 13-pitch at-bat. “He wasn’t able to execute his pitches after that.”
What’s up with all of the home runs? Scott Lauber asked Phillies pitching coach Chris Young about the team’s inability to keep opposing hitters inside the ballpark. The Phillies think they have uncovered a trend that will stop opponents’ home run derby shows. “It’s not the baseball, it’s not the air, it’s not the hitters. It’s something that we, as a staff, have to address and get better at,” Young said.
Juan Nicasio was placed on the injured list Thursday after telling the team Wednesday night about the groin injury he was dealing with. The righthander is the eighth Phillies reliever to be placed this season on the injured list. “We need him at his best for the rest of the season, so this was a good opportunity to give him that blow and create some recovery for him,” Gabe Kapler said.
Tonight: Vince Velasquez faces Mets righthander Jacob deGrom, 7:10 p.m.
Tomorrow: Jake Arrieta starts against Mets righthander Noah Syndergaard, 7:15 p.m.
Sunday: Aaron Nola sends the Phillies into the break against Mets righthander Zack Wheeler, 1:10 p.m.
Monday: Home Run Derby in Cleveland, 8 p.m.
Tuesday: J.T. Realmuto plays in the All Star Game, 7:30 p.m.
Zach Eflin’s two homers allowed Thursday night were the 94th allowed this season by a Phillies starting pitcher in 87 games. The starting rotation is averaging 1.08 homers per game, which puts them on pace for a major-league record 175 homers. The major league record is 169 homers allowed by the California Angels rotation in 1987 and the National League record was set by the Cubs in 2000 with 162. The Phillies’ franchise record is the 154 they allowed in 1999. The Phillies had six pitchers that season start more than 20 games: Curt Schilling, Paul Byrd, Chad Ogea, Randy Wolf, Robert Person, and Carlton Loewer.
“At the end of the day, we have to get control of the home run ball. It’s not something that is acceptable to us,” Gabe Kapler said. “This level of play, we can’t keep it going. We have to do a better job than this. The first thing we have to get a handle on is keeping the ball in the ballpark.”