Zach Eflin gloved the baseball Wednesday night and stepped on first base for the final out of the eighth inning. Eflin had, yet again, been excellent.
But, as he returned to the dugout, Eflin knew his work was done. His nine strikeouts tied a career high. He threw just 82 pitches, but there would be no shot at a complete game, because the Phillies’ offense failed him in a listless 2-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Eflin’s effort -- he allowed just two runs on five hits before being lifted for a pinch-hitter -- was wasted.
The Phillies managed just three hits, and the loss breezed by in 2 hours, 16 minutes. They have lost eight of their last 13 games.
The lineup was stymied by a 30-year-old rookie pitcher, and the effort offered little encouragement in the final game before this weekend’s battle in Atlanta for first place in the National League East.
“It’s tough to waste a start like that from Zach,” catcher J.T. Realmuto said. “We’ve got to do a better job of getting on base and driving guys in when they’re on base. I feel like we’re playing OK baseball. There’s a lot more out there for us. We can definitely play a lot better than we’ve been playing lately. You go through stretches like this throughout a season. It’s a long year, so hopefully we can get some rest tomorrow and go into Atlanta and start a streak.”
The Phillies had just two hits in the first six innings, and both were by Nick Williams, who replaced Bryce Harper in right field, as the star sat for the first time this season.
Williams entered the game with one hit and 10 strikeouts in his last 13 at-bats. Yet, he was the only Phillies batter who could figure out Arizona’s Merrill Kelly, a right-hander with a low-90s fastball who spent the last four seasons pitching in South Korea.
Williams doubled to start the third inning, but Kelly retired the next three batters with ease. That was about as close as the Phillies would get to scoring. It was the only time they had a runner in scoring position. The first four hitters -- Cesar Hernandez, Jean Segura, Jay Bruce, and Rhys Hoskins -- combined to go 0 for 15. Hernandez has just five hits in his last 50 at-bats and seems to be in danger of being pushed out of the leadoff spot for the surging Scott Kingery.
Kelly struck out five batters, didn’t issue any walks, and stayed in the game until Harper batted for Eflin with two outs in the eighth. The Phillies built their lineup this winter to out-slug opponents, but it ranks 18th in slugging percentage and has hit the fifth-fewest homers in the National League. This was another punchless night for a lineup built with knockout power.
“I think we’re going to hit home runs,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I guess if you just look at a third of the season, would have I expected that’s where we’d rank? Probably not. Do I expect us to rank there at the end of the season? I don’t. I think we have power up and down the lineup. We have guys who have a history of hitting home runs. I expect that trend to continue.”
It was the final game of a 35-game stretch against non-division opponents, ending 19-16. They will fly to Atlanta on Thursday and play their next 26 games against teams from the National League East, including half against the Braves and the Nationals.
“I think we have better baseball in us than this recent stretch of games,” Kapler said. “We have more-consistent baseball in us than this recent stretch of games. We have to play better in order to beat teams like the Braves and the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. These are very good teams. They present strong challenges. In order for us to be successful against them, we have to play really good baseball.”
In a season plagued by pitching injuries and inconsistencies, Eflin has been a steady presence. He has allowed two runs or fewer in six of his last eight starts. His ERA after 13 starts is just 2.81. He has easily been the team’s best starter, and he pitched like it on Wednesday night.
The two runs he gave up in the fifth inning came on three straight singles and a sacrifice fly. None of the singles were hit particularly hard, but they found places to land. For Eflin, it was a run of bad luck. And with a listless offense, soft contact was enough to spoil an otherwise excellent night.
“It happens throughout the season,” Eflin said. “Nobody’s ever won 162. You’re gonna go through points like this in a season. It’s all about how you respond to it. How much does it [tick] you off, how much does it make you wanna go out and kick someone’s [butt]. We’re gonna be just fine. Just one of those rough patches every team goes through.”
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