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Phillies’ stretch-run storylines: Aaron Nola’s struggles, Zach Eflin’s knee, and Alec Bohm’s role

With a Charmin-soft schedule providing the backdrop, the final 44 games will provide plenty of intrigue.

Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm was benched for four games last week. How much will he play down the stretch?
Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm was benched for four games last week. How much will he play down the stretch?Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

PHOENIX -- In the waning days of last month -- and for most of July 30, in particular -- a tsunami of swaps resulted in changes of address for dozens of marquee players, including 10 who were All-Stars two weeks earlier. It was the most active trade deadline in recent memory, and the baseball industry fed off the buzz.

Here, though, is the corollary to all the wheeling and dealing: Competitive imbalance is as pronounced as ever.

The bad teams got worse, at least this year. Same for a few that were on the outer fringes of contention. Nearly 25% of teams have no chance to make the playoffs, the phrase “wait ‘til next year” becoming a reality in places like Washington, the North Side of Chicago, Pittsburgh, Denver, and here in the desert.

But those clubs will still impact playoff races. The Phillies’ schedule always appeared favorable down the stretch. Now it feels softer than Charmin. Beginning with Tuesday night’s series opener here, 30 of their last 44 games are against the Diamondbacks, Nationals, Marlins, Rockies, Cubs, Orioles, and Pirates, who combined to go 34-79 since July 30 and were outscored by an incomprehensibly atrocious 708-473 margin.

Spoilers? Those teams are behaving more like patsies.

» READ MORE: Rhys Hoskins, Ranger Suárez, and a soft schedule: Why the Phillies can still make the playoffs | Marcus Hayes

“I don’t really want to hear that. I don’t want our players to hear that,” manager Joe Girardi said Sunday. “We have to grind out every game and try to win every game. That’s the bottom line.”

Indeed, while the schedule will provide the backdrop, there are other storylines worth following as the Phillies attempt to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011. Let’s explore a few:

The Nola conundrum

This was pitching coach Caleb Cotham last week after Aaron Nola dominated the Dodgers for four innings in a rain-shortened start: “I know there’s been blips, but for me, the arrows are all pointing in the right direction.”

A few days later, Nola got rocked by the Cincinnati Reds.

What gives?

It isn’t one thing, and if the Phillies had the answers, they would fix it. Generally speaking, Nola hasn’t had a consistent feel for his sinker and has gotten a lower rate of ground balls (40.2%) than his career average (49.1%). His fastball command has come and gone from start to start, too, leaving him unable to put hitters away. He has allowed 59 two-strike hits, tied with Texas’ Jordan Lyles for most in the majors.

» READ MORE: Phillies pitcher Kyle Gibson gives his strikeouts more meaning with donations to local charities

Some of that has been bad luck, according to Cotham, who noted that some of the two-strike hits have been bloops and bleeders. Regardless, it has been a problem. Can it be solved in Nola’s last eight starts?

“We’ve talked about it, for sure,” Cotham said. “But it’s really tough to say, ‘Hey, you should’ve done something different’ when you get that weak contact. If it’s a millimeter different place on the bat, it’s a popout. I think at some point those are going to continually go to somebody [for an out].”

But what if they don’t? What if Nola’s 2021 winds up as a lost season akin to, say, Cole Hamels’ 2009?

That brings us to this ...

Zach Eflin’s knee

When Hamels stumbled in 2009, the Phillies shored up the rotation by trading for Cliff Lee and signing Pedro Martinez. This year, they dealt for Kyle Gibson and moved closer Ranger Suárez into the rotation, which felt like robbing Peter to pay Paul after lefty José Alvarado went down last week with a shoulder injury.

Keep an eye, then, on Eflin.

Sidelined since July 20 with patellar tendinitis in his right knee, Eflin was encouraged Sunday after facing hitters in a 28-pitch, two-inning session. He traveled with the Phillies and likely will throw another live-batting practice before they leave Arizona. A minor-league rehab assignment could follow.

Even if Eflin is able to provide five-inning starts down the stretch, it would help deepen the rotation in September.

» READ MORE: Phillies' Rhys Hoskins gets cortisone shot to help speed recovery from groin injury

Will Bohm stay on the bench?

The Phillies are built to slug. But after averaging 5.1 runs per game last season, they’ve averaged only 4.5 despite running back the same lineup. Maybe the Diamondbacks’ league-worst pitching will awaken the bats, just as the Nationals’ stripped-down staff did two weeks ago.

Alec Bohm is an offense-first player, and after a long slump, he’s batting .306 since June 1, albeit with only 11 extra-base hits. With Rhys Hoskins out with a strained groin, Girardi said last week that Bohm would get time at first base to keep utilityman Ronald Torreyes’ clutch bat in the lineup at third.

But Bohm’s defense on the right side of the field is no better than it was at third base. He made a costly error that was later changed to a hit last Wednesday night against the Dodgers and got benched for the next five games, all against right-handed starters, including Tuesday night against Arizona’s Taylor Widener.

“Overall, I think Bohm is much more of an impact bat,” Girardi said last week. “I’m just trying to reset him in a sense.”

The Phillies stuck with Bohm in April and May when they could’ve sent him to triple A. It’s difficult to imagine them demoting him now. But they are about to have alternatives, too. Hoskins may return later this week; newly acquired Freddy Galvis, a solid defender who can play short, second, and third, began a minor-league rehab assignment Tuesday night and could come back soon from a strained quadriceps.

» READ MORE: Phillies need struggling third baseman Alec Bohm ‘to make the plays he’s supposed to make’

For the sake of Bohm’s development, he needs to play every day. But what if that’s at cross-purposes with the Phillies’ short-term goal of fielding their best lineup to snap a nine-year postseason drought?

Like so much over the last 44 games, it will bear watching.