NEW YORK -- The Phillies tormented the New York Mets one final time before the All-Star break Sunday afternoon, scoring four times in the first inning on their way to an 8-3 victory at Citi Field.
Aaron Nola remained in ace mode, allowing just one earned run and three hits over 6 ⅔ innings. Catcher J.T. Realmuto, the team’s lone All-Star, remained a hot hitter with a two-run double that put the Phillies up 3-0 in the first inning. And Jay Bruce contributed two more home runs, his ninth and 10th in 28 games since joining the Phillies.
It was nice and neat, but it could not erase the question that is on the mind of every Phillies fan ahead of Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Cleveland: What the heck is wrong with this team?
Sure, they are still very much alive in their quest to end a seven-year playoff drought, but everybody was expecting so much more from the team that added Bryce Harper, Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and David Robertson.
The Phillies aren’t supposed to be nearly a week’s worth of games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East, especially when they were 3 ½ games ahead of them near the end of May. But that’s the reality and it’s not difficult to understand why it has happened.
Even though the shiny new offense underachieved, it is not the primary reason the Phillies (47-43) are only four games above .500 at the break. The offense also will not be the main concern when the season resumes Friday against the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies have averaged 4.9 runs per game, which puts them among the upper half of teams in baseball. Did we expect more home runs than the 115 they have hit? Yes, especially in this juiced-ball era. But the Phillies have hit more doubles than all but six teams in baseball and are 14th in extra-base hits. They hit enough to win and Bruce has helped keep the offense going even after the season-ending loss of McCutchen.
Pitching has been the Phillies’ biggest problem for multiple reasons and it will remain the primary concern in the second half. Injuries, of course, played a factor. The Phillies’ bullpen ERA at the break is 4.76, 20th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Remarkably, three of the four teams below them are in their division.
“I don’t want to pin our struggles and our adversity in the first half on any one area in particular,” manager Gabe Kapler said after his team won for the seventh time in eight games against the Mets. “I just don’t think that would tell a complete story. However, I do think the injuries that we’ve had in our bullpen have been impactful for us.”
The Phillies had eight relievers spend time on the injured list in the first half and they used 23 relievers overall, including position players Sean Rodriguez and the departed Aaron Altherr. The biggest loss was Robertson, who has been sidelined since mid-April with elbow soreness. He could return late this month. Veteran Tommy Hunter has looked sharp in four scoreless appearances since his return from a forearm strain.
“I believe that we’ve weathered the storm,” Kapler said before listing a group of relievers that could right the ship in the second half. His list included Robertson, Hunter, Adam Morgan, Seranthony Dominquez, and Jose Alvarez. Hector Neris, of course, was the Phillies’ most reliable reliever in the first half.
But just as the bullpen appears to be getting back on course, the rotation has become an even bigger concern than it already was. With Nola pitching like an ace again, the Phillies still rank 11th in the National League and 17th in baseball with a 4.53 rotation ERA. Every rotation in the National League East has a lower ERA than the Phillies.
Injuries are not to blame, however. Phillies general manager Matt Klentak decided before the season that the rotation could count on the trio of Nick Pivetta, Vince Velasquez, and Zach Eflin -- and he also overestimated the depth of the starting pitching in the minor-league system.
Eflin provided the Phillies with some consistency in the first half, but his ERA was headed north in a hurry during his final three outings before the break. It also now appears as if Jake Arrieta could be headed to the injured list with a bone spur in his elbow. He will spend his All-Star break being examined by team doctors in Philadelphia after being knocked around in Saturday night’s loss to the Mets.
Arrieta’s ERA over his last 11 starts is 5.57, so even if the Phillies get good news on the injury front this week they still have to figure out how to get him right on the mound again.
Kapler’s answer Sunday about the Phillies’ rotation concerns was not nearly as reassuring as his bullpen fix.
“What we’ve seen recently is Nola return to form and we also have hope and trust that some of our other guys will step up,” Kapler said.
It’s far more likely that change is going to be needed and that’s a job that Klentak must complete in the next 3 ½ weeks before the July 31 deadline.