First, Aaron Nola struck out 12 batters.
Then, the bullpen struck again.
What could have been a confidence-inspiring doubleheader sweep of the New York Yankees turned into an unsatisfying split for the Phillies on Wednesday night when Tommy Hunter entered a tie game in the seventh inning, faced five batters, didn’t record an out, and gave up two runs in a 3-1 loss at Citizens Bank Park.
The bullpen nearly blew the opener, too. With an eight-run lead and three outs to go, Austin Davis and Trevor Kelley combined to give up four runs, forcing manager Joe Girardi to use closer Hector Neris, who would’ve been the choice over Hunter in the nightcap if only he hadn’t pitched in the first game.
If you’re sensing a theme, you aren’t wrong. Through six games, 11 Phillies relievers have allowed a total of 17 runs in 16 2/3 innings for a 9.18 ERA.
“I believe we’re going to get better,” Girardi said of a bullpen that can’t get much worse.
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Girardi: Phillies must balance winning with staying injury-free
With the Phillies stuck in Miami Marlins-induced coronavirus limbo last week, Girardi had unscheduled time on his hands. So, he sat on his couch and watched baseball on television.
And he noticed all the injuries.
Pitchers, in particular, are having difficulty staying healthy. Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Cole Hamels, Corey Kluber, Mike Soroka, Ken Giles, Miles Mikolas, Roberto Osuna and Shohei Ohtani are among the biggest names that have gone down, but there are dozens of others filling up injured lists across the league.
It isn’t all elbow and shoulder issues, either. Soroka, the Atlanta Braves’ young ace, tore his Achilles earlier this week. Clayton Kershaw only recently returned from back stiffness. Strasburg is dealing with a nerve problem in his right hand.
There’s almost certainly a connection between the brief ramp-up to this pandemic-shortened season and the injury epidemic. Training camp lasted three weeks, less than half of a normal spring training. Add in the Phillies’ seven-day layoff last week, and Girardi is being extra cautious about pushing his pitchers too hard.
In a normal year, Girardi likely would’ve allowed Aaron Nola to go out for the seventh inning in a 1-1 game last night against the Yankees. But Nola hadn’t pitched in 12 days and was making only his second start of the season. Under the circumstances, 88 pitches were enough.
“We’ve seen how many injuries there have been in the game up until this point,” Girardi said. “I have a responsibility to the organization and our fans to win, but I also have a responsibility to the health of our players.”
It underscores why pitching depth is more important than ever in this sprint season. The Phillies don’t have enough, especially in the bullpen. They have trouble getting to closer Hector Neris with a lead, and it’s even more difficult when the starters aren’t stretched out to go seven or eight innings.
But even in a season when every game counts 2.7 times as much as usual, Girardi won’t let the pursuit of a few early-season wins cloud his view of the bigger picture.
“Probably even more important, I have a responsibility to the players that I don’t allow them to hurt themselves because they’re trying to be heroes,” Girardi said. “Because this is their career. It’s how they make their living. So a lot of times, I have to protect players from themselves. I take that very seriously.”
Bob Brookover introduces us to Oscar Alvarado, Brett MacMinn, and friends — a.k.a., “Phandemic Krew” — who showed up for the games and made sure that they were heard.
It’s been only two starts, but Zack Wheeler has already developed a rapport with J.T. Realmuto.
Remember when Matt Klentak called Nola and Wheeler “as good a twosome as you’ll find in the league?” They certainly looked the part last night, as Matt Breen writes.
Tonight: Zach Eflin makes first start of season in finale vs. Yankees, 6:05 p.m.
Tomorrow: Vince Velasquez starts series opener vs. Braves, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday: Jake Arrieta takes on the Braves, 6:05 p.m.
Sunday: Phillies will need a starter for 1:05 p.m. game. Spencer Howard?
Stat of the day
After all the postponements and the schedule changes, the Phillies are lined up to play 16 of their first 17 games at home. Consider it another oddity in the most unusual of seasons.
But it isn’t unprecedented.
In 2003, the Montreal Expos technically played 16 of 17 games at home, although some of those games were held in Puerto Rico. But the Phillies did have had a 17-game homestand in June/July 1972.
It being 1972, they went 5-12 — Steve Carlton won four of the games, naturally — and got outscored, 73-64, by the Mets, Cardinals, Giants, Padres, Dodgers. Carlton famously went 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA that season, while the Phillies finished 59-97.
From the mailbag
Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.
Question: I enjoy reading Extra Innings very much! My question concerns MLB awards this shortened season. Are they really going to award MVP, Cy Young, etc.? What does 60 games really mean? Any player can get off to a great start, but even maintaining it through 60 games does not a batting champion make. 250-300 at-bats? Twelve starts for a starting pitcher? Seems kind of ridiculous! Your thought? Thanks. Keep up the great work.
— David, via email
Answer: Hey, David. Thanks for reading and for the kind words.
The four major end-of-season awards in each league — MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year — are voted on annually by the Baseball Writers Association of America. As long as this continues to be recognized as an official season, there isn’t a reason the awards wouldn’t be presented as usual.
I agree that certain accomplishments — batting .400, for instance — won’t mean the same thing in a 60-game season. But within the context of this year, bizarre as it is, it’s still fair to crown the best player, pitcher, etc., in both leagues, just as the writers did in, say, 1981 and 1994, when strikes prevented a full season from being played.