WASHINGTON – The weather finally permitted the Phillies to get back on the field Wednesday at Nationals Park, but there still is no end in sight to the June swoon that has swept them out of first place in the National League East.
The Phillies’ lackluster 6-2 loss to Washington in the opener of a D.C. doubleheader was followed by a broken-nose masterpiece from black-eyed Max Scherzer in the nightcap that allowed the Nationals to complete a sweep with a 2-0 victory.
The Phillies have lost 10 of 16 this month in a variety of ways, none more painful than Friday night’s fall-from-ahead ninth-inning defeat against the first-place Braves down in Atlanta. They have lost an entire bullpen full of relievers to the injured list and a trio of starters to acute bouts of ineffectiveness.
Some of the losses are a result of bad luck, others a byproduct of bad decisions. The Phillies obviously overestimated the quality and depth of their starting pitchers, but there was no way they could have either envisioned or prepared for all the bullpen casualties.
Their greatest loss of all, however, has been veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
“This guy does more for this clubhouse than maybe he even knows,” first baseman Rhys Hoskins said the day the Phillies learned that McCutchen was lost for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee. “He’s a presence in this lineup, a presence on the team and the field. But I think we have to focus on the next-man-up mentality on the field.”
Predictably, the Phillies miss the man on the field the most, although they could use McCuthen’s calming influence in the clubhouse right about now as well.
McCutchen spent the bulk of his career in the middle of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfield and batting order, winning one MVP award and finishing third in the voting two other times. He was no longer that player, but he had emerged as one of the better leadoff hitters in baseball during his first two months in a Phillies uniform.
Without him, the Phillies offense has struggled to find its way. During their current three-game losing streak, they have scored just three runs.
McCutchen had a .378 on-base percentage, 12 doubles, and 10 home runs out of the leadoff hole. If you wanted to have a conversation about the top five leadoff hitters in the game, he was in it. He was becoming a different kind of player in his early 30s than he was in his mid-20s and it was fun to watch.
More important, the Phillies were feeding off his energy at the top of the order.
“Independent of the recent struggles, we knew were going to miss McCutchen,” manager Gabe Kapler said after the Game 1 loss to the Nationals. “We certainly have. He was a consistent force for us at the top of the lineup. Not just when he did damage, but also the way he took pitches and worked counts. He was excellent up there. We haven’t really found a way to replace him.”
Kapler gave Cesar Hernandez the first shot at batting leadoff because the second baseman did so successfully for a long stretch in the first half of last season. In eight games out of the top spot after the McCutchen injury, however, he went 4-for-32 with three walks and scored just three runs.
Jean Segura has been the leadoff man in the last five games, including both ends of Wednesday’s doubleheader. He was 0-for-5 with a couple of strikeouts in the first game, then singled off Scherzer to start the second game.
It could have been a double, but he did not run full speed out of the box.
“I talked to him about that,” Kapler said. “He knows he has to run hard out of the box. He knows he should be on second base. It’s just unacceptable. Simple as that.”
This was Segura’s second offense, with the first one coming in San Diego on the infamous play that ended McCutchen’s season. A night on the bench might be a better form of communication this time.
Segura did eventually get to second base on a fly ball to left field by Bryce Harper, but Scherzer left him stranded there. Segura went hitless in his final three at-bats with two foul outs and a strikeout. He is hitting .100 (2-for-20) out of the leadoff hole.
Kapler said another change at the top of the lineup could be coming soon.
“We might get a little creative here,” the manager said. “Nothing too wild, but we certainly want to create some sort of momentum and shake things up a little bit.”
Things would be a lot worse for the offense if Jay Bruce had not arrived via a trade from Seattle just as McCutchen was lost for the season. Bruce’s power helped the Phillies win four games in a row immediately after the McCutchen injury.
Without Bruce in the lineup for two games because of a hamstring injury, the Phillies scored just three runs on 12 hits in losses to Atlanta and Washington.
“I think they both matter,” Kapler said.
Bruce did return to the lineup for the second game Wednesday, but he could not ignite the offense as the Phillies wasted strong starting pitching performances from Zach Eflin in the opener and Jake Arrieta in the nightcap.
“It has been tough, but … this is going to happen throughout a season,” Eflin said after allowing three runs over six innings. “It’s really how we bounce back. Nobody is pressing the panic button. We know we’re going to be just fine. It’s just one of those rough patches.”