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The Phillies are riding Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin as far as the starter trio can carry them | Extra Innings

In an age when teams deploy one-inning “openers” and pull aces after 5 1/3 innings in Game 6 of the World Series, the Phillies lean on their top three starters like pillars.

Aaron Nola (left) and Zack Wheeler (right) have joined Zach Eflin (not pictured) to form a formidable threesome atop the Phillies' starting rotation.
Aaron Nola (left) and Zack Wheeler (right) have joined Zach Eflin (not pictured) to form a formidable threesome atop the Phillies' starting rotation.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

What was the craziest thing about the Phillies’ four-game sweep of the Brewers this week at Citizens Bank Park?

a) The total margin of victory in the four games was five runs.

b) Neither Devin Williams nor Josh Hader — Milwaukee’s one-two punch at the back of the bullpen — got into a game in the series.

c) Between Didi Gregorius’ first-inning grand slam Wednesday night and Alec Bohm’s solo homer in the seventh inning Thursday, the Phillies went 2-for-44 with three walks and 24 strikeouts.

Regardless, the Phillies matched their longest winning streak of the season (after going almost a month without winning even two in a row) and are in first place with a 17-15 record. Can they carry it into a nine-game road trip? They’re 80-123 on the road since 2018.

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In Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin they trust

Five weeks into the season, the Phillies grade out as the worst defensive team in the National League, according to the metrics from Sports Info Solutions. Their center fielders are batting .120; their primary leadoff man, .198. They have scored 12 fewer runs than they have allowed.

But they also hand the ball to Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, or Zach Eflin three out of every five games.

And sometimes, that’s enough.

Manager Joe Girardi calls them “1A, 1B, and 1C,” and treats them accordingly. In an age when teams deploy one-inning “openers” and pull aces after 5 1/3 innings in Game 6 of the World Series, the Phillies lean on their top three starters like pillars.

Nola topped 100 pitches in three of his last four starts. Eflin did it in two of his last four. Wheeler has completed at least seven innings in five of seven starts, including Thursday’s complete-game 2-0 shutout of the Brewers, and averaged 103 pitches per start.

In 20 starts among them, they have thrown 130 innings, more than any other trio in baseball. Trevor Bauer, Clayton Kershaw, and Julio Urias of the Dodgers are the closest with 121 2/3 innings in 20 starts. Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, and Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals are third with 105 innings in 18 starts.

“I think there’s a sense of confidence with those guys,” catcher Andrew Knapp said of the Phillies’ horses. “They all try to one-up each other. It’s been fun.”

But Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin are also central to any chance that the Phillies have of breaking a nine-year playoff drought. They give a flawed roster a chance to win in spite of itself.

To wit: When the offense was muted, as it has been often, Nola and Wheeler shut out the Cardinals and Brewers, respectively. Eflin is a six- or seven-inning lock, lightening the load for a bullpen that’s been taxed by short starts from the back of the rotation. Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin have combined for a 3.05 ERA; the Phillies’ other starters have a 5.96 mark in 51 1/3 innings.

The Phillies drafted Nola in the first round in 2014, traded franchise icon Jimmy Rollins for Eflin six months later, and signed Wheeler for $118 million as a free agent in the 2019-20 offseason. And although they were inherited by president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, anchoring a team to a top-heavy rotation is a familiar formula for him.

In Detroit, Dombrowski built playoff teams and pennant winners around Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sánchez. In Boston, he won division titles and a World Series with Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, and Eduardo Rodriguez. Those teams didn’t have the Phillies’ weaknesses. But their success always came back to starting pitching.

“The one place I would say that I’m a little old-fashioned compared to what the contemporary is, I still like our starters to give us six to seven innings,” Dombrowski said after getting hired in December. “I like seven innings out of a starting pitcher, but I also don’t believe seven innings and 140 pitches, either. There’s a pitch limit. But I think you win with starting pitching.”

Girardi is wary of pushing starters too far, too. He went to the mound Thursday after Wheeler allowed a pair of one-out hits in the ninth inning, then got the second out on a fly to left. The conversation was short. He wasn’t taking Wheeler out of the game, but he also was giving him only one more batter.

Wheeler responded by getting Daniel Vogelbach to foul out.

“I’m not crazy about doing it too often, and you pick your times to do it,” Girardi said. “We have three guys that are able to do that, which helps. I think it’s a luxury.”

It also can be a pathway to success.

Two years ago, the Nationals won the World Series with a top-heavy roster that relied on starters Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin. They combined for 583 1/3 innings, 40.5% of the total thrown by Washington pitchers.

Thus far, Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin have accounted for 46.6% of the Phillies’ innings total.

“It’s been huge,” Knapp said. “They’ve kept us in it. There’s been some streakiness with the bats. But those guys have been able to grind basically the entire time. They’ve stepped up when we need them.”

And there’s no overestimating how much the Phillies need them.

The rundown

More on Wheeler’s second career shutout in Matt Breen’s game story.

We all know about the Phillies’ weaknesses. But in winning four in a row against the Brewers, they demonstrated character and fight, as Bob Brookover writes.

Jean Segura will be reinstated from the injured list Friday after he missed 15 games because of a strained right quadriceps. Archie Bradley says he could be back from the muscle strain in his side when the Phillies return from their nine-game road trip.

Check out Monica Herndon’s photo gallery from Thursday’s win.

In case you missed it a few weeks ago, here’s more on Wheeler’s evolution into an elite major-league pitcher.

Important dates

Tonight: Eflin vs. Charlie Morton in the series opener in Atlanta, 7:20 p.m.

Tomorrow: Vince Velasquez faces Braves’ Ian Anderson, 7:20 p.m.

Sunday: Nola starts vs. Braves on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, 7:08 p.m.

Monday: First day off for Phillies since April 22.

Tuesday: Phillies open a three-game series in Washington, 7:05 p.m.

Stat of the day

When Alec Bohm came to the plate in the seventh inning Thursday, he had only eight hits in his last 45 at-bats. His batting average was down to .212, his OPS to .562.

There’s no denying, then, that he needed a hit as big as his solo home run against Brewers starter Brandon Woodruff.

But Bohm’s slump wasn’t as hopeless as it seemed.

Entering play Thursday, Bohm’s batting average on balls in play was .266 (.300 is considered average). His hard-hit rate, defined as the percentage of balls in play with an exit velocity of at least 95 mph, was 53.7%, an increase from his 46.8% mark last season.

“Alec’s numbers don’t reflect how hard he hit the ball this year,” Girardi said. “And it’s unfortunate because it’s frustrating for him. He’s not running into a lot of luck. That’s the bottom line.”

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Given the Scott Kingery fiasco over the past three years, why are the Phillies trying to convert the smoothest/most promising infielder in years (Nick Maton) into a center fielder? — Andrew S., via Twitter (@shermaning)

Answer: It’s a fair question, Andrew. Thanks for sending it along.

In retrospect, many team officials concede that asking Kingery to be a super-utilityman as he was adapting to life in the major leagues in 2018 wasn’t the best thing for him. A lot of fans would probably like to line up and say, “Told ya so!”

But this isn’t that. If the Phillies were getting any production from center field, I doubt they would be asking Maton to take fly balls. They aren’t trying to enhance his versatility just to do it. They’re desperate for a center-field solution. It’s worth a look. I do agree, though, that they must be wary of messing up Maton in the process.