Gabe Kapler, his right hand pointing to the sky, moved swiftly Wednesday night as he left the dugout and cut toward the mound. It was just the fourth inning, which meant there were more than two hours until a 15-1 beatdown by the Nationals would finally end, but Nick Pivetta’s outing was done.
It was the end to another disappointing night for Pivetta, who entered the season with such promise but has sputtered in each of his first three starts. The right-hander allowed seven runs in 3 2/3 innings against the Nats. When Kapler reached the mound, Pivetta handed him the ball, dipped his head, and retreated to the dugout.
He threw 39 pitches in the first inning, allowed three runs, and was visited twice by pitching coach Chris Young before recording his first three outs. The first four batters reached base, and it was easy to see that this would not be Pivetta’s night.
The crusher came in the fourth inning, when Anthony Rendon, who is 7 for 14 with five extra-base hits against Pivetta, blasted a three-run double. Pivetta was lifted a batter later, and the blowout -- which ended with Aaron Altherr on the mound -- was on.
“It wasn’t there today,” Pivetta said. “You’re going to have ups and downs in this game. This game’s going to beat you up. You just have to bounce back. I have another start in five days. I’m going to go in there and do a lot better than I did today.”
Before Pivetta imploded, manager Gabe Kapler and general manager Matt Klentak spent part of their afternoon stating the confidence they had in their bullpen after that unit stumbled the previous night. It might be time to shift those concerns to the rotation, the lone area the Phillies did not address this winter. Just one pitcher, No. 4 starter Zach Eflin, has not stumbled.
“In order for us to meet expectations, we need better performances,” Kapler said about Pivetta after the game.
The season is just 11 games old, but it’s difficult to imagine the Phillies contending for a division title with the same cast of starting pitchers. That is likely the driving force for management seemingly staying out of the market for reliever Craig Kimbrel, saving their financial resources for a rotation upgrade in June or July
The Phillies need to prioritize winning this season over development, Kapler said in spring training. They simply don’t have the luxury to allow a starting pitcher to take his lumps in the majors and hope it becomes a learning experience. If an upgrade is needed before June or July, the Phillies can reach into triple-A for Jerad Eickhoff, Drew Anderson, or another IronPigs starter.
How patient can the Phillies be with Pivetta?
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Kapler said. “I don’t know. The answer to that question is probably, ‘Pretty patient,’ but I’m not sure exactly how to answer that question.”
Pivetta was replaced by Juan Nicasio, whose first pitch in a week was smoked for an RBI double. Nicasio was charged with two runs in two innings before handing it over to Edubray Ramos, who was rocked for four runs and recorded just two outs after allowing the tying homer in Tuesday’s 10-6 loss. Jose Alvarez, who allowed the winning runs on Tuesday night, gave up one run in 1 2/3 innings.
In the ninth, Altherr struck out two, allowed one run, and recorded more swings-and-misses than Nicasio, Ramos, and Alvarez.
“I was honestly expecting more out of myself,” cracked Altherr, who had not pitched since high school. “No, it was really fun though. I’ve been wanting to do that for so long. I think in the seventh inning I was telling [bench coach] Rob Thomson ... ‘If you need a guy, I can do it for you.’ The eighth inning comes around, and he was like, ‘How serious were you about pitching?’ I was like, ‘I’m serious. Let me go in there.’ That was fun.”
So much of the Phillies’ faith in Pivetta centered on his ability to rack up strikeouts. He did that against the Nationals, striking out six. But he also walked three batters, worked a high pitch count, and had trouble finding consistency with his curveball and mid-90s fastball. Pivetta is talented, but he has struggled to display that talent on a consistent basis. Kapler said Pivetta lacked the “intent he needed to finish his breaking balls.”
“It’s conviction, and it’s attacking,” Kapler said. “I think he sometimes picks around the strike zone instead of really aggressively attacking hitters. It’s a mindset.”
After his rough first inning, he retired seven of the next eight batters. Four of the outs were strikeouts, and the lone baserunner reached on an error. He ended the third inning by chasing a tapper in front of the mound and throwing out Yan Gomes. Pivetta pumped his fist. His rough beginning, it seemed, might be behind him. But, an inning later, he would be waiting on the mound as his manager trekked from the dugout.
“There’s always pressure, but that’s fun,” Pivetta said. “It’s fun to be in this position. It’s fun to be in this clubhouse right now. It’s fun to have that pressure, especially with the fans we have coming to the games and the expectations that we do have. We need to be better, and I need to be better. The results for me weren’t good today, but I’m going to work really, really hard.”