SAN FRANCISCO — The Phillies have another rebuilding project on their hands.
And this one requires more immediate urgency than the methodical construction of a team that club officials hope can be a contender in a couple of years.
Right now, the Phillies must rebuild Aaron Nola’s confidence. It took another beating Sunday in an 8-7 loss to the San Francisco Giants (see Instant Replay).
The 23-year-old right-hander was hit hard for the fourth straight start. He gave up a career-high 10 hits and five runs in just 3⅓ innings. Known for being a master of control, Nola uncharacteristically hit three batters, which prompted San Francisco starter Johnny Cueto to drill Maikel Franco in retaliation.
Really, there was no need for Cueto to retaliate. Nola wasn’t trying to hit anyone on purpose, and two of his plunkings came on curveballs. He has lost his way so badly that he had no idea where the ball was going.
“He’s a little confused right now,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “He’s approaching his first full year in the big leagues so he’s going to have some adversity. He probably hasn’t had any in quite a while, if at all. You can see his confidence is shaken. But he’s smart and a competitor. He’ll bounce back at some point.”
Nola had a 2.65 ERA in his first 12 starts this season. It has climbed to 4.45 over his last four starts as he has been tagged for 32 hits and 22 earned runs over just 13 innings.
Nola arrived in the majors 11 months ago and recorded a 3.12 ERA in his first 25 big-league starts. His ERA in his last four is a troubling 15.23.
“I’m concerned,” Mackanin said. “Four starts in a row he hasn’t gotten out of the fourth. It happens. He has to battle his way out of it.”
Mackanin said “as far as I’m concerned” Nola would make his next start Saturday at Citizens Bank Park against Kansas City.
Nola’s strength has always been his ability to throw four-seam fastballs, sinkers and breaking balls away from the middle of the plate.
Lately, that strength has abandoned him. His stuff has caught too much plate and hitters have feasted.
“I’m not really finishing my pitches,” Nola said. “I’m just kind of cutting everything off, not getting on top of the ball, which leads to finishing the pitch.
“This is the first time I’ve gone through this. I’m going to keep working through the week and try to bounce back. “
Nola wouldn’t admit to his confidence being shaken, but he did acknowledge a slump like his weighs on the mind.
“You just have to fight through it,” he said
Looking to shake Nola from his slump, Mackanin paired Carlos Ruiz with Nola for the first time ever.
Ruiz sensed that Nola’s confidence is bruised.
“You can see that a little bit,” he said. “His command is not consistent. It’s tough. He’s young.”
As a team, the Phillies showed plenty of fight in this series. They battled back to beat Madison Bumgarner with three runs in the seventh inning on Saturday night and never stopped coming at Cueto on Sunday. Bumgarner and Cueto entered the series with ERAs of 1.85 and 2.06, respectively, ranking third and fourth in the NL.
“I’m real proud of the guys and the way they battled against tough pitching and a good team,” Mackanin said.
The Giants have won 32 of their last 42 games while the Phillies have lost 28 of 36.
With Nola struggling so badly, the Phils fell behind 5-1 in Sunday’s game. Nola hit his second and third batters in the third inning and the Giants put four runs on the board.
With two outs in the top of the fourth, Cueto drilled Franco. The Phils went on to rally for two runs. They rallied for two more to tie the game on Cody Asche’s two-out, two-run single in the fifth.
Franco had a feeling someone would get plunked by Cueto — “it’s part of the game,” he said — and it turned out to be him. But Franco said the plunking actually was a good thing for the Phils.
“It brought us energy,” he said.
The Phillies tied the game twice more on a homer by Odubel Herrera in the seventh and an RBI hit by Ruiz in the eighth. The Giants won it on a walk-off hit by Conor Gillaspie off Severino Gonzalez with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Ramiro Pena’s long-fly double to the right-field corner preceded the hit. Rightfielder Peter Bourjos fought the sun and wind, but could not make a catch.
"The ball crossed right in front of the sun and the wind was pushing it back," Bourjos said. "Because of the elements I couldn’t take my eye off the ball and check where the wall was. If the sun is not there, it’s a play I probably make."
Mackanin used Gonzalez into his second inning of work because he said his bullpen had been taxed lately.
"I'm going to the bullpen so much," he said. "I can't use everybody the way I want every night."
In the end, it was just another loss for a team that has already racked up a ton of them.
Of more immediate importance is the matter of fixing Nola.