Go ahead and yell about why the Phillies didn’t get anyone up in the bullpen sooner. Scream yourself hoarse over why Neftalí Feliz was the reliever of choice in a newly tied game in the fifth inning. Armchair managing is a cottage industry in Philly baseball summers, and perfectly acceptable after a game like this.
It’s also missing the larger point. Because it doesn’t matter what moves Joe Girardi makes when the Phillies don’t get more than 14 outs from Aaron Nola.
The record will show that Feliz, an erstwhile All-Star closer who was appearing in his second major-league game in 1,417 days, gave up the go-ahead runs in the Phillies’ 11-6 loss to the Miami Marlins on Wednesday night at Citizens Bank Park. For posterity, he allowed a two-out, two-strike RBI single to Joe Panik and a two-run double to Sandy León. Then came a thunderstorm, and a 38-minute delay, and three more Marlins runs, and the Phillies’ 10th loss in 15 games.
OK, managerial critics: Have at it.
“This is a performance-based business, right? You have to perform or changes are made,” said Girardi, who is in the second season of a three-year contract. “That’s for everyone. It includes me, too, right? If the team doesn’t perform to standards, I’m the one that’s in charge and I’m the one that is responsible. That’s the business we live in.”
Girardi stood by the decision to use Feliz, in part because lefty Ranger Suárez was unavailable after reporting back spasms while playing catch before the game. Suárez would have been a “logical choice,” in Girardi’s words, to get out of the fifth inning.
But Nola lasted only 4⅔ innings on a steamy, 94-degree night after going 5⅓ last Friday in New York and 2⅓ six days before that in San Francisco. He gave up seven earned runs for only the fourth time in his career and the first since Aug. 22, 2017. He allowed nine hits, most of them singles, few hit particularly hard. But as Nola said, “A hit‘s a hit.”
And after striking out 11 of the first 19 Marlins batters (after tying Tom Seaver’s major-league record with 10 consecutive strikeouts in his previous start against the Mets), he turned to his breaking stuff as a put-away pitch in a six-run fifth inning in which he gave up four consecutive two-out singles — three on two-strike curveballs, one on a changeup, and only one ball that was hit particularly hard.
“Maybe [I could’ve made] better pitches, but can’t do anything about those,” Nola said. “They were placed perfectly. I made the pitch as best as I can, and they laid the bat on it. Yeah, it’s tough to swallow.”
Nola has alternated dominance with duds in his last four starts. He hasn’t made back-to-back quality starts since April 29 and May 4. He has completed seven innings only once in his last 12 starts and has a 4.44 ERA in 17 starts overall.
It has all been so, well, un-Nola-like. The Phillies have a top-heavy roster, and when their best players aren’t the best players on the field, it’s a bigger problem than whether Girardi opted for Feliz over Connor Brogdon or Héctor Neris or anyone else in a bullpen that is better than last year’s historically bad relief crew but not by enough.
Nola seemed out of sorts after balking a runner to second base with one out in the fifth. But he got Starling Marte to ground out and froze Garrett Cooper with back-to-back curveballs. A 5-2 lead felt secure. It even seemed Nola would be good for at least one more inning.
But Cooper reached out and served a low-and-away curveball into center field for an RBI single. Adam Duvall followed with a bloop single on a two-strike curveball to put runners on the corners. Miguel Rojas blooped another single into center on another two-strike breaking pitch to drive in Cooper and cut the margin to 5-4.
That was when Girardi finally placed a call to the bullpen. But as Feliz loosened up, Marlins rookie Jesús Sánchez tied the game and pushed the go-ahead run to third base by lining a changeup to right field, the only hard-hit ball in the rally.
“It’s not what I’m usually doing,” Nola said. “I’m going to keep working and believing I’m going to pitch a lot deeper into games. I need to pitch a lot deeper into games. I’m obviously not going long enough.”
Girardi figured he had five pitchers to get the remaining 13 outs. He liked Feliz to get out of the fifth inning against the bottom third of the Marlins’ order. But after cranking up his fastball to 97 mph in triple A, Feliz topped out at only 95.
And in a span of nine pitches, the Marlins had an 8-5 lead.
“He didn’t have the velocity that he’s had in the past, that he had the other night, and that made the difference,” Girardi said. “I don’t know that before he warms up.
“I wanted to get multiple innings out of Héctor because he was the most rested. [Enyel De Los Santos], I would’ve liked to stay away from him today, but I couldn’t. I mean, I was really limited in my choices.”
Girardi’s reliever usage has been a point of contention among fans as impatience grows with the Phillies’ sub-.500 record under the veteran manager. The Phillies have many issues, including the worst defense in baseball (two more errors Wednesday night) and the inability to get runners on base for Bryce Harper, who hit two more homers to raise his season total to 13, all solos.
The bullpen is a two-year problem, though, and it’s so profound that Girardi could almost throw darts to determine which reliever to bring into a game.
Feel free to hoot and holler about it. It’s perfectly reasonable.
But the Phillies should also expect more from Nola. If they don’t get it, everything else is eyewash.
“There’s been a myriad of issues that we’ve had during the course of time, whether it’s pitching, defense, hitting. There’s been a number of things,” Girardi said. “But we’ve got to turn this around. I believe we can, but we have to start doing it. I mean, that’s the bottom line.”