Phillies

Cubs 3, Phillies 2: Phillies' winning streak ends on Javier Baez's walk-off single

Cubs 3, Phillies 2: Phillies' winning streak ends on Javier Baez's walk-off single

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CHICAGO — The Phillies suffered a painful 3-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night.

The Cubs won it with two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning against reliever Juan Nicasio, who was called on to close on a night when four of the team’s top relievers were apparently unavailable because of recent workload.

The Cubs scored the game-tying run on a bases-loaded infield hit by Albert Almora Jr.

They won it on a hit by pinch-hitter Javier Baez.

The Phillies’ bullpen was clearly not at full strength as Pat Neshek, Seranthony Dominguez, Adam Morgan and Hector Neris were all unavailable because of recent workload.

Edgar Garcia and Jose Alvarez got the Phils through the seventh and eighth innings with the lead, but Nicasio could not hold it.

The loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Phillies.

The keys

• Starter Zach Eflin did a lot of bending, but he did not break. In the end, it did not matter.

• Kris Bryant scored from second base on a ground ball to shortstop in the first inning, giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead. Bryant was running on the play. It ended up being a huge run for the Cubs.

• Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco had hits in the seventh to set up Andrew McCutchen for a two-run single that gave the Phils a 2-1 lead.

• The Phillies won a challenge in the bottom of the fourth inning and it kept a run off the board. Bryant stroked a ground-rule double to left with two outs. It initially appeared as if Kyle Schwarber had scored from first on the play, but he was told to return to third after the replay review showed him just past second base as the ball left the field of play. It was a pivotal moment in a close game.

• Nicasio faced an uphill battle after walking the leadoff man in the ninth. He then allowed a double. The Cubs scored the tying run with the bases loaded on a nubber out in front of the plate by Almora. Nicasio's toss home to J.T. Realmuto for an attempted force out was not in time. The next batter, Baez, finished the game with a liner to right field.

Eflin’s night

Eflin worked with catcher Realmuto. His previous four starts had come with Andrew Knapp behind the plate.

The right-hander, who entered the game walking just 1.45 batters pre nine innings (third-best in the majors), was uncharacteristically wild, especially early. He walked a season-high four and three of them came in the first inning.

Eflin was able to survive that early wildness and 32 pitches in the first inning on his way to giving the Phils six innings of one-run ball.

Push for playing time

With Odubel Herrera in an 0-for-15 funk and a lefty on the mound for the Cubs, manager Gabe Kapler used Scott Kingery in center field for the second time in three games. He handled three balls in center and doubled in the ninth. Kingery will continue to get looks in centerfield and has a chance to make a serious dent in Herrera’s playing time if he produces.

Health check

Outfielder Dylan Cozens, who had been playing at Triple A Lehigh Valley, is sidelined indefinitely after requiring surgery to repair a heel injury that bothered him as far back as spring training.

Up next

Rookie Cole Irvin, winner of his first two big-league starts, returns to the mound Wednesday night. He will oppose another left-hander with the same first name. Yes, Cole Hamels will pitch against the Phils for the first time in his career. He is 4-0 with a 3.33 ERA.

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Trade deadline moves might not matter for Phillies if they don't get their ace, Aaron Nola, back

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Trade deadline moves might not matter for Phillies if they don't get their ace, Aaron Nola, back

ATLANTA — Equally important as the result of the Phillies-Braves series this past weekend was another high-stress, low-quality start from Aaron Nola.

Nola just can't find a groove this season. He's made 15 starts. In his first five, he had a 6.84 ERA. In his next five, he had a 2.30 ERA, limited the homers and walks and looked like he was back to himself. Then in his last five, he has a 5.65 ERA and has walked 15 batters in 28⅔ innings.

He is not hurt. He says his body and his arm feel good. He's not pitching through pain or altering his mechanics because of an ache. He just isn't pitching well. He isn't locating his four-seam and two-seam fastballs consistently. His curveball, a pitch that has led him to success since his teenage years, has at times lacked its trademark snap and at other times hung over the plate. His changeup, a key pitch against lefties that took him to another level in 2018, has not been effective.

"I want to get it straightened out soon," Nola said after giving up five runs in 4⅓ innings to the Braves on Saturday. "I feel like I have a good start, bad start, OK start, bad start, just up and down. It's kind of how the year's been for me. 

"Walks and home runs hurt me this year. I feel like getting ahead is the key for me. I haven't been doing that too much but a lot of times I'm barely missing. That's pretty much been the big thing for me."

Last season, Nola threw a first-pitch strike 69.4 percent of the time, second-best in MLB behind only Miles Mikolas. This season, Nola's first-pitch strike rate is down to 58.8 percent. That ranks 64th out of 86 qualifying starters. It's a worse rate than the often wild Aaron Sanchez and barely ahead of Yu Darvish, who has struggled for two years to throw strikes.

Walks and home runs really have told the story of Nola's 2019 season. In 15 starts, he's surrendered 13 home runs. It took him 29 starts to allow 13 home runs last season.

In 81 innings, he's walked 36 batters. It took him 131 innings to walk 36 batters last season.

It will be incredibly difficult for the Phillies to win the division or advance in the postseason if Nola continues to pitch like this.

"His command hasn't been where it needs to be consistently to be the ace that we know he's going to be," manager Gabe Kapler said Saturday. "Again, I have no concerns or worries about Aaron Nola turning the corner. And when he does it's going to be fun to watch. He's going to get nothing but support from us because we know he's going to be a horse for us down the stretch and we're excited for that moment."

When will that moment come? We won't know until Nola has reeled off five, six, seven good starts in a row. 

The issue would stick out even more if the Phillies' offense wasn't bailing Nola out the way it has. He is 6-1 despite a 4.89 ERA. The Phillies have gone 9-6 in his starts. Wondering why? Because they've scored 64 runs in the 81 innings he's been in the game. The only National League pitchers who have been given more run support are Milwaukee's Brandon Woodruff and Atlanta's Max Fried.

Baseball isn't like the other sports. Split-second events determine success or failure. For a pitcher, missing by an inch here, an inch there can change the complexion of a start, a month, a season. In our 2019 season previews, we were careful here to note that you couldn't just expect 2019 Nola to be 2018 Nola. It's not how it works at baseball's highest level. All the good developments do not translate from one year to next. Players have career years and then regress. 

It was pretty clear that 2018 was a career year for Nola — guys just don't maintain a 2.37 ERA over 200-plus innings often. Roy Halladay, for example, had an ERA that low in only one of his 16 seasons and never in a full season had an ERA+ as good as Nola's. (ERA+ measures a pitcher's ERA relative to the league average that year. Nola's last season was 73 percent better than the league average; Halladay's career-best in a full season was 67 percent.)

The thing is, Nola right now hasn't even looked like the pitcher he was in 2017, when he had a 3.54 ERA with sterling strikeout and walk numbers. The guy is putting 1.56 men on base per inning this season.

Trade deadline acquisitions, players returning from injury ... in the long run, none of it will matter if Nola can't be a front-of-the-rotation starter.

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With so few options at back of rotation, where do Phillies turn?

With so few options at back of rotation, where do Phillies turn?

ATLANTA — A one-sentence summary of the Phillies' series finale Sunday against the Braves? Sean Rodriguez was by far their best pitcher.

The Phillies were blown out, 15-1, in a game when they used an opener for the second time this season (see observations). Gabe Kapler told Vince Velasquez late Saturday night that he would get the "start," and the plan was to ride Velasquez for 50 to 60 pitches before turning to lefty Cole Irvin.

Velasquez, Irvin, Jerad Eickhoff, none of them came close to getting the job done. All three allowed consistently hard, loud contact. The Braves had nine extra-base hits and three more deep fly balls crushed to the warning track.

"We knew we were gonna bring Cole, we knew we had length out of Jerad and thought we could get 50 to 60 pitches out of Vince," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We did all those things, we just didn't do it effectively."

It was ugly from start to finish, and it again highlighted the Phillies' need to go get a starting pitcher right now. Not on July 10, not on July 20, not on July 31 but now. You can't force another team to trade with you, but let's forget for a minute about the top end of the market, the tier of Matt Boyd, Mike Minor, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke. The Phillies just need another reliable arm that can give them six innings, get through a lineup three times. Maybe that arm comes from the minor-league system.

While it's true that most teams have a shaky fifth starter, most teams also have a few trustworthy arms ahead of them in the rotation. The Phillies do not right now. Aaron Nola has a 4.89 ERA. Jake Arrieta has a 4.31 ERA. Nick Pivetta is trending in the right direction, and Zach Eflin has been very good for much of the season, but this quartet has not collectively performed like a playoff rotation.

One thing looks abundantly clear, though: The Phillies cannot continue with the opener experiment with this personnel. Velasquez doesn't have the command, Irvin and Eickhoff don't have the stuff to keep the Phillies in the game against a lineup as potent as the Braves'.

What happens Friday when this rotation spot comes up again?

"We have a lot of work to do, a lot of discussions to have," Kapler said. "No question about it, we have to be better and we'll discuss it more on the flight to Washington, D.C., and get our ducks in a row.

"We haven't pitched our best recently. I think that we have a better level of play in us in totality and I have trust in our starting pitchers — Nick, Jake, Nola, obviously Eflin has been outstanding. We have a group of guys who have a track record of success and Nick has been sensational since he's back from the minor leagues. There's some confidence there."

The Phils clearly don't have a ton of confidence in Velasquez, Irvin or Eickhoff as starting pitchers or else one of them would have the No. 5 starter's job. Actions always speak louder than words.

Irvin's ERA is 6.84, Eickhoff has allowed 18 home runs in his last 28 innings, and Velasquez hasn't been able to take his team deep into games.

Who is next? Ranger Suarez? Enyel De Los Santos? Ramon Rosso? Adonis Medina? The decision won't be made for several days.

"I think we'll rebound from this with ease," Velasquez said. "I think it's just one of those games where these guys are hot and we've got to tip our caps off to them and keep moving forward. 

"They had a solid month, and we're right on their tails. I don't think it's one of those things where we should necessarily give up as a pitching staff or as an offensive team."

The Braves have been the hottest team in the NL, winning 24 of their last 34 games. And Velasquez does have a point — as well as Atlanta has played of late, as many injuries as the Phillies have, the deficit is only 2½ games. They can make that up in a series. 

But to do so, they need the starting staff to carry them for a bit. It hasn't been able to the way it was the first half of 2018. With so many key relievers injured, with Andrew McCutchen out for the season and Jay Bruce and J.T. Realmuto banged up, that is the unit that must step up. 

Can they do it? Can they keep the Phillies in the game against Patrick Corbin Monday, Max Scherzer Wednesday and Stephen Strasburg Thursday? If not, the gap between the Phillies and the Braves will only grow wider.

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