Phillies

Braves 15, Phillies 1: Braves demolish Phillies, who badly need another SP

Braves 15, Phillies 1: Braves demolish Phillies, who badly need another SP

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ATLANTA — The Phillies' need for another starting pitcher has not been more glaring than it was Sunday afternoon in a totally embarrassing 15-1 loss to the Braves.

With no fifth starter currently on the Phillies' roster, Gabe Kapler went with Vince Velasquez as an opener in Sunday's series finale and it did not work.

Velasquez hit Ronald Acuña Jr. on an 0-2 pitch to begin the game, before Dansby Swanson singled and Freddie Freeman hit a two-run double. In all, Velasquez allowed four runs in 2⅓ innings before giving way to Cole Irvin.

Irvin didn't fare any better, giving up a long two-run homer to the second batter he faced, Josh Donaldson, then giving up loud contact the next few frames. Irvin gave up six runs in 3⅔ innings as the Braves built an eight-run lead that only grew and grew.

Jerad Eickhoff, formerly the No. 5 starter, entered next and allowed two more home runs. Eickhoff has been taken deep an astonishing 18 times in his last 28 innings.

The Phillies didn't hit, didn't play good defense and definitely didn't pitch well.

They need to quickly figure out the back of this rotation. Granted, the next time the fifth spot in the rotation comes up is against the lowly Marlins Friday at Citizens Bank Park, but the league just isn't being fooled by Velasquez, Irvin or Eickhoff.

Other options would be Enyel De Los Santos, Ranger Suarez or a pitching prospect like Adonis Medina, who is on the 40-man roster and is on a nice little roll at Double A Reading, going 5-0 with a 1.24 ERA over his last five starts.

The Phillies are 39-32 and 2½ games behind the Braves in the NL East. The Braves are 24-10 in their last 34 games, six games better than the Phillies over that span.

The Phils have lost 10 of their last 16.

Down two starters

The Phillies were without starting catcher J.T. Realmuto and leftfielder Jay Bruce in this one. Realmuto exited Saturday's game after taking a foul ball to the groin and Bruce left with hamstring tightness. Both are day to day and will avoid the injured list. 

It's possible one or both are back in the lineup Monday, though it could be Tuesday.

This is what a deep lineup looks like

Back when the Phillies had Andrew McCutchen and there was still hope/optimism about Odubel Herrera and Maikel Franco, they had what looked like one of baseball's deepest lineups. That is no longer the case. On Sunday, the Phils' 5-through-8 hitters were Cesar Hernandez, Nick Williams, Franco and Andrew Knapp. Not going to scare anyone.

The Braves just have a much better lineup. In order:

1) Acuña Jr. is a beast. 

2) Swanson has an OPS over .800.

3) Freeman is one of the two best hitters in the National League. 

4) Donaldson is a former MVP and a dangerous right-handed bat that is starting to get hot. 

5) Nick Markakis is a clutch left-handed hitter who rarely strikes out. 

6) Austin Riley will be in the Rookie of the Year conversation and might win it.

7) Ozzie Albies has blazing speed and at .281, has a higher batting average than every Phillies starter except Scott Kingery.

It helps that the Braves have had eight fewer injuries than the Phillies, none to their current starting lineup. But the gap in offenses right now is impossible to overlook.

Up next

The Phillies are in D.C. to play four games against the Nationals, who are 9-5 in June. The Phils will face all three of the Nationals' top starting pitching trio.

All four games are at 7:05 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia.

Monday: Jake Arrieta (6-5, 4.31) vs. LHP Patrick Corbin (5-5, 4.11)

Tuesday: Zach Eflin (6-6, 2.81) vs. Erick Fedde (1-1, 3.68)

Wednesday: Nick Pivetta (4-1, 5.00) vs. Max Scherzer (5-5, 2.81)

Thursday: Aaron Nola (6-1, 4.89) vs. Stephen Strasburg (7-4, 3.75)

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Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

Aaron Nola slipped in one key area last season and is out to improve on it in 2020

CLEARWATER — Aaron Nola did not have a bad season in 2019 by any stretch of the imagination. He made every start and went 12-7 with a 3.87 ERA. There are pitchers all over baseball who would love to have a season like that.

But it's indisputable that Nola's 2019 season was not nearly as good as his 2018 season. In 2018, he was brilliant. He went 17-6 with a 2.37 ERA. He finished third in the National League Cy Young voting.

Nola's WHIP in 2018 was a sterling 0.975.

Last season, it was 1.265.

After pitching two scoreless innings in his spring debut Sunday, Nola reflected on his 2019 season.

"I didn't get ahead," he said.

He's right.

Check out the numbers.

In 2018, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time. That ranked second in the majors to St. Louis right-hander Miles Mikolas (71.1).

Last season, Nola's first-pitch strike percentage slipped to 62.3. That ranked 39th in the majors, well behind leader Max Scherzer (70.4) and teammate Zach Eflin, who ranked fourth (68.6).

Nola ended up walking 3.6 batters per nine innings last season, up from 2.5 in his big year of 2018.

So, it's no surprise what Nola is working on this spring.

"Just fill up the strike zone and throw the ball down a lot," he said. "That's kind of the key. Get ahead of guys and stay ahead of guys. I just want to focus on having that tunnel vision around the plate."

If you've paid attention to the things Phillies pitchers have said this spring and even late last season, you know they weren't always comfortable with the practices of former manager Gabe Kapler and former pitching coach Chris Young. The theme in this camp, at least among the pitchers, can be summed up in one word.

Simplify.

"I'm just going to simplify some things and throw my fastball for strikes," Nola said. "I don't want to throw too hard too early in the count."

Nola pointed to his outing Sunday. He allowed a hit to open the game then got a double-play ball with a strike down in the zone.

"I want to try to get ground balls and I felt like I did that today," Nola said. "I got a double play and it's satisfying to get double plays."

Nola, 26, has so far enjoyed bonding with Bryan Price, his fourth pitching coach in as many seasons. Price espouses some traditional philosophies, like keeping the ball down. In that regard, he is similar to Bob McClure and Rick Kranitz, two former Phillies pitching coaches that Nola thrived under.

"That's been my mindset ever since I started to pitch and it is really stressed now," he said of pitching down in the zone. "I think that's what pitching should be and that's what we've always learned how to do.

"I think the state of the game is to simplify things and get back to that part of it. I look forward to my one-on-one bullpen sessions with (Price). When you have a bad game or not as good of a game as you want to go back to basics in the bullpen sessions. I've had previous pitching coaches like that and it has helped me a lot. Just to simplify things is going to go a long way."

Nola believes if he does a better job getting ahead early in counts that his curveball and particularly his changeup will become better weapons for him in 2020. His changeup blossomed under McClure and Kranitz during their stints in Philadelphia.

"My changeup wasn't as consistent as it was in previous years," Nola said. "I am just trying to get back to throwing that for strikes down more.

"When I'm throwing everything for strikes, I have three pitches."

Manager Joe Girardi has not named an opening day starter yet, but Nola is expected to be the guy when he does.

And when Nola takes the mound March 26 in Miami, his goal will be this:

Strike 1.

That's a big reason he had a great season in 2018 and why he slipped some in 2019.

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Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

Updates on Phillies spring training debuts of Zack Wheeler, Jake Arrieta, Zach Eflin

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies ace Aaron Nola made his first start of the spring Sunday while their new No. 2, Zack Wheeler, is slated to debut Saturday in Dunedin against the Blue Jays.

Wheeler has been throwing to hitters at the Phils' minor-league complex.

Fifth starter candidates remain in focus as Vince Velasquez makes his first start on Monday against the Orioles in Clearwater.

Nick Pivetta, another candidate, made his first start Saturday and showed a potential new weapon.

Lefty Ranger Suarez is being stretched out as a starter and could be a dark-horse candidate for the fifth job. He will get a start Tuesday at Bradenton while Jake Arrieta starts in Clearwater that day. Suarez pitched well out of the bullpen last year but was groomed as a starter in the minors.

Zach Eflin will make his spring debut Wednesday against the Twins in Fort Myers.

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