'I’ve got to get better,' says Bryce Harper, who continues to have trouble with the fastball

'I’ve got to get better,' says Bryce Harper, who continues to have trouble with the fastball

MILWAUKEE — A few things went wrong for the Phillies as they went for a series sweep of the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday afternoon.

Zach Eflin was fighting a stomach bug. He had trouble keeping his fastball out of the middle of the plate, was hit hard, and made an early exit.

Vince Velasquez did not come close to duplicating his strong bullpen debut of Friday night. He was racked for five hits, including a double and two homers, and four runs in less than an inning of work as the Brewers turned a three-run lead into a rout.

Phillies pitching gave up five homers in all.

But the biggest thing that prevented the Phillies from sweeping the Brewers was their inability to handle starter Brandon Woodruff.

The Phillies ended their seven-game trip to Chicago and Milwaukee with a 9-1 loss (see observations). Woodruff, who beat the Phils with six innings of one-hit ball less than two weeks ago in Philadelphia, was even better this time. The hard-throwing right-hander absolutely manhandled the Phillies’ hitters, holding them to just one hit over eight walk-free innings. He struck out 10 and Phillies' hitters struck out 12 times in all.

Andrew Knapp’s solo homer in the sixth inning was the Phillies’ only hit — their only base runner, for that matter.

“Thank goodness for Knappy with him being able to get the homer right there,” Bryce Harper said. “I think a lot of us thought (Woodruff) had the stuff to be perfect today. I thought he went out there and really did a good job. Sometimes it's going to be like that.”

Woodruff is 7-1 with a 3.22 ERA.

“He's really good, man,” Harper said. “I can't think of who I was talking to on the bench, but he looked like a Matt Harvey when he came up — exploding fastball, curveball, changeup, pitching at the top of the zone. I think he's really good.”

Woodruff struck out Harper and Odubel Herrera three times each.

All three of Harper’s strikeouts came swinging at high fastballs between 97 and 98 mph.

Now, that’s a big fastball that’s going to bite a lot of hitters. But Harper’s struggles with the fastball this season are notable. He leads the majors with 73 strikeouts. Thirty-nine of those strikeouts have come on fastballs, the most in the majors. 

Harper also has swung and missed at 83 fastballs this season, second most in the majors to Arizona’s Christian Walker. Overall, Harper has swung and missed at 16 percent of pitches this season. His career rate entering the season was 11.5 percent. Over the first 53 games of the season, Harper is hitting just .227 with nine homers and 34 RBIs. He does have a healthy .355 on-base percentage, fueled by 37 walks.

After Sunday’s game, Harper was asked specifically about his work on fastballs. He admitted they are giving him difficulty so far this season.

“Yeah, all-around it's not good right now,” he said. “I've got to get better. I've got to be better. Turn the page from today and take the day off tomorrow and turn in to St. Louis.”

The Phils host the Cardinals for three games beginning Tuesday night.

Manager Gabe Kapler did not dispute that Harper is having trouble with fastballs, but he remains full of faith that his No. 3 hitter will explode at some point.

“I have zero concerns on Bryce Harper,” Kapler said. “I am so confident that his numbers are going to be there at the end of the year. We’ve seen in the last couple of weeks flashes of it being where it needs to be. That is more engrained in my mind right now than today’s game, which was really the result of the opposing pitcher being on-point. Nobody was hitting Woodruff today. His fastball has been pretty devastating all year and he attacked with it today.”

This Phils went 4-3 on the seven-game trip. They go into the Memorial Day checkpoint nine games over .500 and in first place in the NL East.

“I think it was a high quality road trip that could have ended better had we had a great game today,” Kapler said. “But again, I don’t know any other way to emphasize this: Brandon Woodruff was phenomenal today.”

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Bryce Harper hits go-ahead home run as Phillies power past Indians

Bryce Harper hits go-ahead home run as Phillies power past Indians


CLEVELAND — The math says the Phillies still have a chance at making the postseason.

But sitting five games back in the National League wild-card race with just nine games remaining has turned them into spoilers.

With that, the Phils threw a little hurdle in the way of the Cleveland Indians with a 9-4 win on Saturday night.

The 91-win Indians entered the night tied with Tampa Bay for the second American League wild-card spot. They had won five in a row.

The Phils trailed 4-1 after two innings, but they came back to take the lead on the strength of home runs by Brad Miller and Bryce Harper. Harper’s three-run shot in the fifth gave the Phillies the lead.

Jay Bruce and Miller — he blasted his second homer of the game in the ninth — padded the lead with solo homers.

Jason Vargas gave a tired bullpen a break with 6 2/3 strong innings.

The Phillies are 79-74. They need to win three of their final nine games to have their first winning season since 2011.

Vargas’ night

The veteran lefty came into the game with a 7.17 ERA in his previous five starts and he lasted just three innings in his previous two.

Vargas survived a costly error in the first inning and held the Indians to four runs, two of which were unearned. His fastball topped out in the mid-80s, but he was able to change speeds off of that on his way to eight strikeouts. His changeup was a good pitch.

The win was Vargas’ first since July 28, when he was with the Mets. He has 99 career wins.

Good job by the ‘pen

Jared Hughes, Jose Alvarez and Edgar Garcia teamed on 2 1/3 scoreless innings to protect the lead.

Over the last 20 games, the Phillies’ bullpen has posted a 2.69 ERA. That’s second-best in the majors over that span.

Win the battle

On Friday night, lefty reliever Oliver Perez came out of the bullpen and retired Bryce Harper on a ground ball. Cleveland manager Terry Francona went back to Perez when Harper came up with two men on base and one out in the fifth inning. This time, Harper won a long, nine-pitch battle against Perez. He fouled off five pitches before clubbing a full-count slider over the wall in right-center. The three-run homer gave the Phillies a 5-4 lead. Jay Bruce lengthened the lead to 6-4 with a solo homer later in the inning. Bruce, who has missed time with an elbow injury, has just two hits since the All-Star break. Both are homers.

Harper has 33 homers on the season.

No excuse

Shortstop Jean Segura committed a first-inning error that eventually cost Vargas two runs. Cleveland leadoff man Francisco Lindor hit a ground ball right at Segura and he made a low throw across the diamond that Rhys Hoskins could not pull out of the dirt. It was a play that a top defensive first baseman makes, but that’s not the point. The error was completely avoidable and never would have happened if Segura had not been so nonchalant in flipping his throw across the diamond. His lack of intensity on the play cost the team two runs.

Later in the game, Segura made an excellent play when he ranged behind the second-base bag, spun and fired to first base to get Franmil Reyes. Segura can do it when he wants to.

Up next

Vince Velasquez (7-7, 4.89) gets the ball in Sunday night’s series finale. He will go up against Cleveland right-hander Adam Plutko (7-4, 4.34).

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Indians' Shane Bieber pushes Phillies one step closer to the end

Indians' Shane Bieber pushes Phillies one step closer to the end

CLEVELAND — Time continues to run out for the Phillies.

They suffered a 5-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Friday night.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the Brewers hammered the Pittsburgh Pirates, 10-1.

These two outcomes dropped the Phillies five games back in the NL wild-card race with just 10 games to play. The math is against the Phillies. Their elimination number is down to five. If Milwaukee plays just .500 ball over its last eight games, the Phillies would have to go 10-0 just to tie. For a team that hasn’t won more than four games in a row all season, that’s bad news.

“We’ve got to win. Period,” Jay Bruce said. “Can’t worry about anything else. You listen. You read. You concern yourself too much about it and it doesn’t do any good. So we have to win and see what happens. There are no promises. But we know we can’t go where we want to go if we don’t win.”

The Phillies didn’t win Friday night because they did not get a good start from Drew Smyly and they did not hit Cleveland starter Shane Bieber.

The loss was the Phillies’ second in a row and it came with J.T. Realmuto, arguably the team’s MVP, getting the night off. Jean Segura also did not play because of a sore ankle.

Realmuto has carried the heaviest load of any catcher in baseball and manager Gabe Kapler decided to give him a recovery day on the opener of a crucial series. Kapler explained his reasons before the game (see story). Realmuto was not available before the game and he refused to speak with reporters after the game. He is expected to start behind the plate on Saturday night when Jason Vargas looks to stop the losing skid. Vargas has lasted just three innings in each of his last two starts.

Smyly allowed seven base runners and gave up four runs in the first two innings Friday night. He was gone after walking the first batter in the bottom of the third. The lefty appeared perturbed upon leaving the game, but it wasn’t with Kapler’s decision to pull him. The bullpen allowed just one run the rest of the way to keep the Phils in the game.

“I wasn’t upset,” Smyly said. “I was just upset with how the game went. I just wasn’t very good tonight at all. I wasn’t very good with my command and put the team in a hole.”

The Phillies got a two-run double from Maikel Franco, a late add to the starting lineup after Segura was scratched, in the fifth inning and that was the extent of their offense.

Bieber, a 24-year-old right-hander, scattered seven hits, walked none and struck out seven in 7 1/3 innings of work. He looked very much like the guy who was the MVP of the All-Star Game in July.

“He showed why he’s one of the best young pitchers in baseball,” Kapler said. “He brought his A-game tonight. He was able to execute all of his pitches, threw strikes, attacked the zone, and had some wipeout stuff below the zone.”

“He’s the true definition of a pitcher,” Bruce added. “He’s got good stuff, commands both sides of the plate and doesn’t give in. He’s very confident in every pitch he has. He did what he wanted tonight. He hit his spots, he got ahead, he finished guys with different pitches.”

Bieber, who is 15-7 with a 3.23 ERA this season, was a product of the 2016 draft. He went in the fourth round, which means there are 29 clubs out there kicking themselves for passing on him. The Phillies made four picks in that draft, including Mickey Moniak at No. 1 overall, before the Indians selected Bieber out of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Phils selected pitcher Kevin Gowdy, infielder Cole Stobbe and pitcher Jo Jo Romero with their next three picks. Moniak played at Double A this season and Romero pitched at Double A and Triple A. Gowdy missed time recovering from Tommy John surgery and pitched at Lakewood this season. Stobbe also played there. Moniak, Stobbe and Gowdy were all chosen out of high school.

A familiar name closed the door for the Indians. Carlos Carrasco, the former Phillies prospect who was traded for Cliff Lee a decade ago, got the final four outs for the save. Carrasco is one of the game’s best inspirational stories. He was treated for leukemia this summer and is back helping the Indians in a playoff chase.

The 91-win Indians are tied with Tampa Bay for the second AL wild-card spot.

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