Not even Manuel Magic, as potent as it seems, can overcome the most disappointing of Phillies pitchers.
When the season began, Zach Eflin and Nick Pivetta were expected to be regulars in the starting rotation. Instead, they have been demoted either to the bullpen, the minor leagues, or in Pivetta's case, both. On the list of reasons that the Phillies haven't run away with a playoff spot in the National League, Eflin and Pivetta maintain lofty positions.
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And between them, they tossed cold water on a nice, little winning streak Saturday night.
Staked to an early three-run lead, Eflin returned to the rotation and gave up three runs in the fourth inning before Pivetta came out of the bullpen and allowed two in the fifth. The Phillies lost, 5-3, to the San Diego Padres, who slowed their roll at four consecutive wins.
More than 75 percent of the way through the season, the Phillies still have not won more than four games in a row.
“Just horribly executed two-strike pitches,” said Eflin, who gave up back-to-back-to-back hits on two-strike counts to fumble a 3-0 lead. “It’s something that I really need to get on top of.”
It also marked the Phillies’ first loss since Charlie Manuel took over as hitting coach for the deposed John Mallee. The Phillies notched six hits, their lowest total so far under Manuel, and one hit after the third inning against Padres starter Dinelson Lamet and three relievers.
The Phillies gave some ground in the wild-card chase, too, slipping one game behind the Chicago Cubs for the final National League playoff berth with 39 games remaining. The New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers remain hot on their heels.
Pivetta allowed the go-ahead runs by giving up three hits, all on curveballs. Eric Hosmer lined a leadoff single, and after Hunter Renfroe drew a one-out walk, Ty France and Luis Urias sat back on breaking pitches and notched consecutive RBI singles to give the Padres a 5-3 lead.
“There were some singles there, some harder ground balls that got through the infield. We prefer that to the damage that comes on the fastballs up in the zone," manager Gabe Kapler said. “Nick was able to actually execute. It just didn’t work out for us.”
If Pivetta leaned more heavily on his curveball, Eflin threw more two-seam fastballs, in part he said to conserve energy in his return to the rotation spot vacated by injured Jake Arrieta. He threw 26 two-seamers, the second-most he has thrown in a game this season, rather than elevating four-seam fastballs to try to get swings-and-misses.
“I don’t care about swings-and-misses. I care about outs and going as deep as I can,” said Eflin, who lasted 3 2/3 innings. “I think swings-and-misses are a plus when you can do it. I’m not saying that they’re not important, but I think it’s definitely more important to get guys out with fewer pitches as opposed to just going for the swing-and-miss every single pitch. It also takes a toll on your body.”
Eflin’s endurance had been a popular topic in his previous starts. He said his body began to “feel heavy” during a July 20 start in Pittsburgh. Two weeks before that, he said he felt fatigued after a long at-bat by Braves star Ronald Acuna to lead off a game in Atlanta.
The Padres’ comeback really got going when Eflin gave up a full-count single to Lamet, who notched his fourth hit in 46 career at-bats. Manuel Margot followed with an RBI single on an 0-2 slider before Josh Naylor’s two-run double on an inside-out swing on a 2-2 fastball.
It erased a 3-0 lead built in the second inning on doubles by Jean Segura and Scott Kingery and a two-out single by Eflin, and a third-inning solo homer by J.T. Realmuto. But there wasn’t any more Manuel Magic in the cards this time. Not enough, at least, to outscore the damage against Eflin and Pivetta.
Eflin was the Phillies’ most consistent starting pitcher for the season’s first 2 1/2 months, posting a 2.83 earned-run average through 14 starts. But he has a 10.09 ERA over his last seven starts.
Now that he’s back in the rotation, the Phillies will need him to be better.