With Jerad Eickhoff on the mend, Ben Lively can't afford many more of these

With Jerad Eickhoff on the mend, Ben Lively can't afford many more of these

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The calendar turns to May next week and that month will offer more evidence of whether this Phillies team is for real or just the latest example of a club that captured some imaginations with a hot start.

May will also bring some interesting personnel decisions for the front office as three pitchers — relievers Pat Neshek and Mark Leiter Jr. and starter Jerad Eickhoff — near reinstatement from the disabled list (more on Neshek here).

General manager Matt Klentak spoke enthusiastically about Eickhoff’s progress on Wednesday and said the right-hander, who is recovering from a strained lat muscle, would go back in the rotation when he’s ready, probably in the latter part of the month.

Who will go when Eickhoff returns?

It’s not going to be Jake Arrieta, Aaron Nola or Nick Pivetta, and team officials might want to give Vince Velasquez more of a look before they deal with the long talked-about issue of whether his future is as a starter or a reliever. That leaves Ben Lively as a likely image in the crosshairs. It’s up to the 26-year-old righty to not make himself an easy target and he can do that by pitching well, by doing what a No. 5 starter needs to do: keep his team in games.

Lively had done that in his first four starts this season, but he took a step backward on Thursday and was tagged for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings in an 8-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks (see first take).

Lively can’t afford many similar performances if he wants to stay out of the front office’s crosshairs.

“He just didn’t have his best fastball,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “That’s a really good lineup and if you don’t have your best stuff, they’re going to punish you.”

Lively gave up a base hit and a home run on the first three pitches he threw. Arizona sent nine men to the plate in the first inning.

“I guarantee they saw that I was missing over the plate with my fastballs and they were ready for it and every single one I threw over the plate got hit really hard,” Lively said.

Lively offered that he had trouble getting loose and felt some stiffness in his lower back that caused his pitches to leak over the plate.

“I’m not going to blame this on that,” he said. “I still have to make my pitches.”

Arizona owns the NL’s best record. The Phils won one of the three games in the series. They stand at 15-9 while Arizona is 17-7.

“A three-game series is no indication that one team is better than the other,” Kapler said. “We can definitely play with those guys. We can play with anybody in this league. I feel very confident in our team.”

“We came into today with a chance to win a series,” Rhys Hoskins said. “That’s all you can ask for. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but we’ve got a series coming up against the Braves, a divisional series that can get us right back to where we want to be.”

Nola gets the ball in Friday night’s series opener and that’s a good place to start for the Phillies. They are 2-4 against the Braves this season.

Phillies pounded by Diamondbacks in gut-check series finale

Phillies pounded by Diamondbacks in gut-check series finale

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A series billed as a measuring stick for the Phillies ended with a one-sided loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Thursday afternoon.

The D-backs jumped Phillies' starting pitcher Ben Lively for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings en route to pounding the Phils, 8-2, at Citizens Bank Park.

Arizona, which owns the majors’ second-best record at 17-7, ended up winning two of three in the series. The Phillies are 15-9. They entered the series finale with the fifth-best record in the majors.

The Phils beat Arizona and right-hander Zach Greinke, 5-3, on the strength of a strong start from Jake Arrieta and a three-run homer by Aaron Altherr on Wednesday night.

Any momentum that the Phils gained in that one went away quickly as Lively was ambushed for three runs in the first inning. The right-hander served up a two-run homer to Jarrod Dyson two batters into the game as Arizona sent nine men to the plate in the first inning.

Lively walked two batters in the third inning, one setting the table for a three-run homer by Nick Ahmed. The other preceded a two-run homer that was served up by Lively’s replacement, Drew Hutchison.

Hutchison was able to give the Phils 3 2/3 innings of one-run mop-up duty as the team did not have to blow out its bullpen before a three-game series against Atlanta.

Lively does not have overpowering stuff. He relies on deception in his delivery and location of his pitches to keep his team in games. He had done that in his previous three starts, all Phillies’ victories, but was unable to continue the streak in this one.

The Phillies’ starting rotation has been a strength this season. The starting staff entered the game ranked first in the NL with a 3.08 ERA. A starter had allowed more than three earned runs in just four of 24 games this season.

Rookie Matt Koch got the win for Arizona. He held the Phillies to six hits and two runs over five innings.

Notes
• Odubel Herrera has reached base in 26 straight games, dating to last season.

• Aaron Altherr is 7 for 18 with two doubles, a triple, a homer and eight RBIs in his last five games.

• The Phillies host Atlanta the next three days. Pitching matchups:

Friday night — RHP Aaron Nola (2-1, 2.30) vs. RHP Julio Teheran (1-1, 4.00)

Saturday night — RHP Nick Pivetta (1-0, 2.57) vs. RHP Mike Foltynewicz (1-1, 2.77)

Sunday afternoon — RHP Vince Velasquez (1-3, 4.50) vs. RHP Brandon McCarthy (3-0, 3.38)

Sixers focused more on themselves than Round 2 opponent

Sixers focused more on themselves than Round 2 opponent

CAMDEN, N.J. — Tuesday’s series-clinching victory was a monumental achievement for the Sixers. And while the team briefly savored Brett Brown’s first playoff series win as a head coach in memorable fashion, it was back at practice Thursday afternoon, with its focus shifted to Round 2.

“It was fun,” Joel Embiid said of the celebration with Brown. “I was happy for him because obviously after what he’s been through, two years ago he had a team that only won 10 games and this year he’s at, what, 56? I was really happy for him, and that was the first playoff series that he won, so it was something we felt like we needed to celebrate. But we’re on to the next one.”

That next opponent will be either the Celtics or the Bucks. Boston leads the series, 3-2, and can advance with a win in Game 6 Thursday night at 8 p.m. If the Celtics win, the Sixers will play Game 1 of the second round in Boston on Saturday night.

“Because we don’t know who you’re going to play, you don’t have that luxury of time,” Brown said. “No matter who you play, you better get back in transition defense and you better rebound. But it’s easier for sure when you can zoom in and say, ‘OK, you got Giannis, or you got Marcus Smart.’”

Though they don’t have the advantage of knowing their opponent, the Sixers do have a few extra days to recover from what was an extremely physical series against the Heat. They also have a chance to hone their own sets and to sharpen their execution. Ersan Ilyasova mentioned that, among other things, the Sixers worked on creating space for Embiid post-ups.

“At the end of the day, whoever comes out, I think it’s up to us,” Ilyasova said. “Recently, the way we’ve played, we have to focus on ourselves and if we do the right things, it’s going to be in our favor.”

Boston or Milwaukee is just not the primary concern at the moment. Sure, the Sixers will tune into Game 6 with interest. Embiid said he’ll be watching at home as usual with Markelle Fultz and Justin Anderson. But the intense, team-specific preparation won’t start in earnest until that series concludes.

“We just prepare for both teams,” Embiid said. “We’re going to be ready for whoever. We played them in the regular season, so we have a lot of scouting reports, so I’m sure the coaches will do their job to get us ready.”

The Sixers went 1-3 against the Celtics in the regular season, while they had a 2-2 record against the Bucks. However, Kyrie Irving, who is out for the playoffs with a left patella injury, played in three of those matchups with Boston. And the Sixers crushed the Bucks in the regular-season finale, 130-95. Regardless of who they play, the Sixers will be favored. If they play close to the level they’re capable of, they should advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Playing in his first postseason, Embiid gave the mature answer of a seasoned veteran when asked if he’d prefer to face Milwaukee or Boston.

“It’s the playoffs. I don’t think it matters,” Embiid. “As long as you play your game and stick to your concepts, you’re going to be fine.”