Here’s the thing about anchoring a team around three frontline pitchers — or, as Phillies manager Joe Girardi likes to think of Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin, “1A, 1B, and 1C”: You better win a good majority of their starts.
It isn’t enough, then, that nine times through the rotation, the Phillies are 14-13 with Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin on the mound.
Eflin took his turn on the short end of an outcome Wednesday night. He held the Miami Marlins to two runs and became the first pitcher in the majors to complete at least six innings in nine starts to open the season. But the Phillies were mostly muted by Marlins starter Trevor Rogers — and Andrew Knapp’s bid for a three-run walk-off home run died in center fielder Magneuris Sierra’s glove on the warning track — in a 3-1 loss before an announced crowd of 11,549, the largest of the season thus far at Citizens Bank Park.
“We had a chance to win tonight. We did,” Girardi said. “We needed a couple hits. I thought Knappy’s ball had a chance. I wasn’t sure. But I think [Nola, Wheeler, and Eflin] have pitched well enough to win.”
Indeed, entering play Wednesday night, Wheeler was tied for second among National League starters in wins above replacement (2.0, as calculated by FanGraphs). Nola was tied for seventh (1.5); Eflin was 10th (1.4). They’ve combined for a 3.29 ERA and are averaging six innings per start. Among them, they have pitched 172 1/3 innings, more than the top three starters on any other team.
But the Phillies have given them two or fewer runs of support in 12 of their 27 starts.
What’s the use of having three topflight starters if you can’t take advantage of it?
“We don’t pay attention to that,” Eflin said. “We’re not looking at stuff like that. Our job is to focus every fifth day and go out and put up innings.”
Said Girardi: “I think they understand what their job is and they worry about doing their job and don’t try to control things that they can’t control. They’ve been through it before. I think they get frustrated when they feel that they don’t pitch as well as they could. But I think they understand the other part of it.”
Rogers, a 23-year-old lefty, allowed little more than Andrew McCutchen’s sixth-inning home run, the 250th of his career. With J.T. Realmuto, the Phillies’ best right-handed hitter, sidelined for a third consecutive game with a bruised left wrist, Rogers neutralized Bryce Harper in the middle of the order and lefty-hitting Brad Miller in a key pinch hit at-bat in the eighth inning.
It was a dominant performance by Rogers, taken by the Marlins five spots after the Phillies selected center fielder Adam Haseley in the first round of the 2017 draft. It also forced Girardi to play the infield in with a runner on third base in the sixth inning and to lift Eflin for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth after only 89 pitches.
In both cases, the Phillies gave up runs. Adam Duvall singled off drawn-in third baseman Alec Bohm’s glove to open a 2-0 Marlins lead in the top of the sixth, and reliever Brandon Kintzler gave up three singles and a run to make it 3-1 in the seventh, a rally aided by home-plate umpire Jeremie Rehak’s judgment call that Garrett Cooper didn’t run out of the baseline to elude Knapp’s tag 20 feet from home plate.
“It’s a judgment call that I think is frustrating a lot of times for all of us,” Girardi said. “It was kind of a game of inches tonight, really. It comes to a couple plays here or there, and none of them seemed to go our way and that was the difference.”
The Phillies had chances to come back again in the late innings, as they did in the series opener Wednesday night.
In the eighth, the first two batters reached against Rogers, who got Miller to ground into a double play before closer Yimi García got McCutchen to line out to shortstop. Jean Segura opened the ninth inning with a double and went to third on Rhys Hoskins’ one-out single. But Bohm struck out and Knapp launched a full-count pitch 368 feet to right-center, where Sierra hauled it in with his back pressed up against the scoreboard.
Two-thirds of the way through the series, the Phillies have held the lead at the end of exactly two innings. The Marlins jumped out in front in the fourth inning of the opener against Wheeler and grabbed the lead in the second inning against Eflin.
After giving up a total of three home runs through his first six starts, Eflin has allowed four over his last three starts, including Brian Anderson’s shot to right field on an elevated sinker to lead off the second inning.
“From my perspective it was kind of up and maybe outer-third [of the plate], maybe even middle,” Eflin said. “Just unacceptable. I’ve got to be able to miss off if I’m going sinker away to guys like that, especially if we have guys sitting looking for the sinker. It can’t happen.”
At least not when the Phillies give Eflin such little margin for error.