ATLANTA -- If it was not yet glaringly apparent that the Phillies must improve their starting rotation before the July 31 trade deadline, what happened here on Sunday is cause for them to post a flashing “PITCHER NEEDED” message on the Citizens Bank Park scoreboard for all to see.
The Phillies had five days to find an alternative to struggling No. 5 starter Jerad Eickhoff. They weighed their options and decided the best in-house move for the series finale against the scorching-hot Braves was to call up rookie left-hander Cole Irvin from triple A and have him follow starter-turned-reliever Vince Velasquez into the game.
And then they watched Velasquez and Irvin combine to allow 10 runs on 13 hits in six innings of a 15-1 annihilation that restored the Braves’ division lead to 2 1/2 games.
Eickhoff couldn’t have done that? Actually, considering he gave up two more home runs in the seventh inning -- that’s 18 homers allowed by the big right-hander in his last 28 1/3 innings -- maybe not.
Regardless, the Phillies surely must rethink how to fill Eickhoff’s spot in the rotation before it comes up again.
“We have a lot of work to do, a lot of discussions to have,” manager Gabe Kapler said after the Braves hit 15 -- count ‘em, 15 -- balls with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph. “No question about it, we have to be better. We’ll discuss it more on the flight to Washington D.C., and get our ducks in a row.”
But the Phillies are running out of ducks. Short of giving Velasquez or Irvin (or both) another chance Friday night against the lowly Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park, the Phillies could recall triple-A right-hander Enyel De Los Santos. Or they could rush 22-year-old prospect Adonis Medina, who has a 3.32 ERA in 11 starts at double-A Reading and was ruled out as an option last week by Kapler.
The point is, any discussion of the Phillies’ other needs -- including reinforcements for their injury-ravaged outfield and bullpen -- is simply a distraction from the real issue. The starting rotation isn’t good enough, plain and simple.
Entering Sunday’s drubbing, Phillies starters had combined for a 4.36 ERA, tied with the Braves for ninth in the National League and 15th in the majors. But while Atlanta has help on the way after signing free-agent lefty Dallas Keuchel to a one-year, $13 million contract, the Phillies are still exploring their internal options before deciding how aggressive they will need to get in a trade market that has not yet fully developed and may or may not wind up including include the likes of the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, the Blue Jays’ Marcus Stroman, and the Rangers’ Mike Minor.
At this rate, general manager Matt Klentak might as well plan on getting aggressive.
“We haven’t pitched our best recently,” Kapler said. “I think that we have a better level of play in us in totality, and I have trust in our starting pitchers.”
Velasquez, moved into the bullpen a few weeks ago, was informed after Saturday night’s game that he would be starting. The Phillies hoped they could get 50-60 pitches from him. He got KO’d after only 38 and with one out in the third inning.
It was a train wreck from the outset. Velasquez hit leadoff man Ronald Acuna Jr. with a fastball, made an errant pickoff throw, then gave up a single to Dansby Swanson and a two-run double to Freddie Freeman. Josh Donaldson singled, and Freeman scored on a ground-ball double play.
“I was energized,” Velasquez said. “I was pretty focused to go as long as I can. Starting or relieving, you’ve got to come in and try to set the tone and limit the damage. I didn’t really start off as hot.”
The Braves have scored 112 runs in 15 games this month en route to going 12-3 and seizing first place, and didn’t relent against Irvin, who gave up a two-run homer to Donaldson that made it 5-0. He gave up two more runs in the fourth inning, another two in the fifth, and one in the sixth.
“I didn’t come in and do my job,” Irvin said. “Whether we have a fifth starter or we don’t, we should all be capable of putting up zeros and being able to be the next guy up to answer that call. It’s disappointing, obviously. It’s an embarrassing way to end the series here. I felt like I let the team down today.”
After Eickhoff got rocked in the seventh inning, utility infielder Sean Rodriguez, who began the game as one of two healthy bench options for the Phillies, pitched the eighth -- and retired the side.
Maybe he can pitch again in five days? Probably not.