ATLANTA -- It was the Fourth of July, after all, so the Braves stuck with that most American of rituals and scheduled a fireworks show after their game at SunTrust Park.
With the Phillies in town, though, there wasn’t any need to wait.
Fireworks have been a nightly occurrence against Phillies pitchers this season. Home runs are on the rise across baseball, but no team in the National League gives up more of them -- 145 and counting entering play Thursday night.
Well, add five more to the tally, including the back-breaking shot by Ozzie Albies in the third inning against weary starter Zach Eflin that sent the Phillies on their way to a 12-6 pounding and third place in the National League East.
“At the end of the day, we have to get control of the home run ball,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It’s not something that is acceptable to us. This level of play, we’ve got to do a better job than this, and the first thing we’ve got to get a handle on is keeping the ball in the ballpark.”
For the first time all season, the Phillies are in third place, having slipped to a half-game behind the Washington Nationals and 6 1/2 behind the first-place Braves. On May 29, they led the Braves by 3 1/2 games and the Nationals by 10.
“You could say it’s tough, but we have a lot of guys in here that are positive,” said Eflin, who allowed seven runs on seven hits and lasted only three innings. “Nobody’s holding their head down. We all know how good we can be.”
Seven batters into the game, the Phillies seized a 4-0 lead on five singles against Braves All-Star sinkerballer Mike Soroka, but it took only 45 pitches for Eflin to give it all away -- and then some.
Kapler said that Eflin appeared to lose life on his pitches after Braves leadoff man Ronald Acuna Jr. waged a 13-pitch at-bat to open the bottom of the first inning. Eflin concurred, claiming the long at-bat zapped him of some energy.
“I wouldn’t say it necessarily wiped me out, but it definitely kind of knocked me back a little bit," said Eflin, who has a 9.64 earned-run average in his last three starts after being the Phillies’ most consistent starter for the previous three months. “It was just consistently one [pitch] after another, one after another. But at the end of the day, I didn’t make the pitches that I needed to make. My two-strike pitches were pretty horrible."
In isolation, though, Eflin is hardly the Phillies’ biggest problem. The pitching staff is on pace to allow 279 home runs, which would shatter both the single-season franchise record (221 set in 2017) and the NL mark (258 set by the 2016 Cincinnati Reds). The 2017 Phillies lost 96 games. That Reds team lost 94 games.
Earlier this week, Kapler said the Phillies had unlocked a “specific adjustment” to help limit the number of home runs against them. But they allowed seven homers in the last two games, including four by starting pitchers Nick Pivetta and Eflin.
Solo homers, such as the one that Swanson hit against Eflin in the first inning, usually don't hurt quite so much. But three-run shots are a killer, and as poorly as Eflin executed a fastball to Albies in the third inning, the Phillies' overall approach with a runner on second base and two outs was even worse.
Eflin walked Brian McCann on four pitches -- “It was just no feel of command,” he said -- to bring up Albies, a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, including nine homers left-handed. Albies jumped on an elevated fastball and launched it over the right-field fence to give the Braves a 7-4 lead.
“If we know home runs are happening for certain reasons [across the league], we need to limit walks,” pitching coach Chris Young said earlier this week. “We need to make sure we’re doing the right things from a game-planning perspective.”
So much for that.
To help combat the home-run boom, which is at least partially attributable to the launch-angle craze that has overtaken hitting, Young has preached to his pitchers to elevate their fastball above the strike zone. But when even those pitches are being hit out of the ballpark, it would seem that further adjustments are required.
Asked to explain the homer epidemic against the Phillies, Eflin was curt.
“I don’t really have any comment on that,” he said. “Leaving balls over the middle, them squaring it up, that’s really all I’ve got to say.”
Young, who served as the Phillies’ assistant pitching coach last season, was promoted to the head job in November. He replaced Rick Kranitz, who took over as the Braves’ pitching coach. Atlanta has allowed 108 homers.
But Kapler continued to defend his coaches from criticism.
“We just don’t scapegoat people,” Kapler said. “It’s not who we are. We get back to work and we make adjustments.”
Rookie reliever Edgar Garcia replaced Eflin and gave up back-to-back solo homers to Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson in the fourth inning to stretch the margin to 9-4, and after the Phillies trimmed it back to 9-6 in the sixth inning, Swanson teed off for a three-run shot against just-recalled lefty Austin Davis.