MILWAUKEE — The Phillies had recorded just one out Wednesday night when the phone rang in the visiting bullpen. Kyle Gibson was laboring on the mound as he struggled for a second straight start and sent the relief pitchers scurrying behind the right-field wall.
It was an ominous way to start a 4-3 loss to the Brewers as Sam Coonrod — a usual late-inning reliever — was warmed up before the first inning was complete. Gibson reached 50 pitches in the second inning and lasted just 4⅔ innings, allowing three runs on seven hits and four walks.
He was a steady presence for five starts after being acquired at the trade deadline, but his two September starts have been rough. The Phillies won four of Gibson’s first five starts and he posted a 1.93 ERA. He has allowed 11 runs over 10 innings in two starts this month, both of which have been losses during a playoff push.
“It was a frustrating first inning, really,” Gibson said. “I felt really good warming up. Stretch and windup. I don’t know if I just got a little bit quick in the stretch or what it was, but I just didn’t have the same feel of my fastball out of the stretch. As I got into my off-speed later in the game, I felt a lot better with it. So I’ll go back and take a look and see if maybe I was a little bit quick, what it might have been mechanically.”
The Phillies did not lose ground Wednesday in the division standings as Atlanta fell at home to Washington. But it was another missed chance to gain ground. The Phillies trail Atlanta by 2½ games with 23 remaining.
The rest of the schedule is mostly light — the Phillies play 14 of their next 17 games against the Rockies, Cubs, Orioles, and Pirates — but those games are only winnable if the starting pitching can be dependable. Aaron Nola has not been sharp this month, Gibson is faltering, Ranger Suarez is pitching through arm soreness, and the Phillies are using a bullpen game instead of a fifth starter.
Gibson left with the score tied at 3 before Connor Brogdon — who extinguished the rally Gibson left for him in the fifth — allowed a two-out homer in the sixth.
Gibson and Nola gave up only three runs in their starts. But they both forced the bullpen carry a heavy load when the Phillies know they already have a bullpen game on Friday and must prepare for the chance that Suarez has complications with his triceps tightness on Thursday.
The rotation, which carried the Phillies in August, is stumbling in September. And if that doesn’t change, it’s going to be hard to chase down a playoff spot.
“Well, I think you’re making it sound a little worse than they’re actually pitching,” manager Joe Girardi said. “We gave up four runs tonight. You have a pretty good chance to win games when you give up four runs. I think our rotation is fine. Obviously, everyone this time of year is going to worry about fatigue for every player that’s out there. But that is just the nature of our game. You have to find a way to fight through it.”
Bryce Harper homered in the first inning and then walked in his next three at-bats as the Brewers seemed willing to pitch around Harper and try their luck with the rest of the lineup.
“I think that’s probably the smart play right now,” Gibson said of avoiding Harper. “He’s locked in. He’s seeing it well and he stays within himself in those big moments all the time. There’s probably nobody we’d rather have up in those situations than him.”
J.T. Realmuto went 0-for-4 behind Harper on Wednesday as the Phillies have struggled recently to protect Harper in the lineup. When Jean Segura hustled to reach base on a two-out infield single in the eighth, Brewers reliever Devin Williams walked Harper on four pitches. They pitched around Harper and struck out Realmuto, whose OPS dropped to a season-low .778.
The Phillies could be challenged down the stretch to construct a lineup that forces teams to challenge Harper, which means the team’s best offensive player may see less hittable pitches in crucial games.
“Those guys will get going,” Girardi said. “I have a lot of confidence in those guys and they’ll get going. We faced some pretty good pitching here in Milwaukee.”
Winning road trip
The Phillies lost two of three in Milwaukee but still flew home with five wins on their nine-game road trip. During the trip, the Phillies gained two games on the Braves, who have dropped nine of their last 14 games.
“It sure would have been nice to go 6-3. But, I mean, we had a winning road trip,” Girardi said. “We’re going home. We have a bunch of games at home over the next two weeks and we need to take advantage of that.”
The Phillies play 14 of their next 17 games at home, where they have a .582 winning percentage this season. The Braves play nine games at home vs. Washington, Miami, and Colorado but then go on an 11-game West Coast trip that includes seven games with San Francisco and San Diego. If there’s a time for the Phillies to make a run, this is it.
“That’s how these next few weeks are going to be. I think everybody is going to be sitting, biting their fingernails a little bit as we get down the stretch here,” Gibson said. “But we believe that if we take care of business, we’re going to be just fine. And this is one of those games, it would be great to have. But that’s a really good team over there and more than likely the team that we’re going to see in October when we get there. To play them pretty tight, to have multiple chances there in the last two innings against their best guys, you really can’t ask for anything else. If I make a couple pitches here or there, we might have a one- or two-run lead instead of being tied.”