Phillies

Phillies get mugged in Miami — their inability to beat bad teams could prove fatal to playoff hopes

Phillies get mugged in Miami — their inability to beat bad teams could prove fatal to playoff hopes

MIAMI — How does this happen? How do the Phillies manage to sweep formidable clubs like the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox (in Fenway Park, no less) and stumble against teams like the Chicago White Sox, San Diego Padres and Miami Marlins in recent weeks?

Obviously, it’s lack of performance, lack of execution, but are there other factors, like, possibly, a lack of concentration that has led the Phillies to play down to the competition so often?

While you ponder this rhetorical question, keep this in mind: The Phillies open a three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates at home on Monday night.

The Pirates are another bad team.

That’s good for the Phillies, who desperately need wins over the final 33 games.

It’s also bad for the Phillies, who in recent weeks have lost series to the White Sox, Padres and Marlins.

The latest fall-on-your face performance was capped Sunday in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins, who are 47-82, last in the NL East.

The Marlins mugged Aaron Nola for three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning to take the lead moments after Rhys Hoskins had belted a two-run homer to put the Phillies on top. Nola had retired 11 straight batters before giving up a one-out double, a walk, an RBI single and a two-run double in the sixth. It was a shocking implosion by the Phillies’ ace and his mates, playing without Bryce Harper (paternity leave) for a third straight day, produced just four hits on the day so there was no bailing him out.

“He was cruising,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “He lost a little command in the sixth. Sometimes even the best pitchers lose command and that's enough.”

Nola, who had held Boston’s thundering offense to two runs in seven innings in his previous start, did not have his best fastball.

“I didn’t really feel like I had my fastball early in the game,” he said. “I was pulling it a lot. My changeup was working today. It was the only thing really working today.”

The Phillies won two in Boston on this trip then lost two of three in Miami. They scored 11 runs on Friday night and still lost. That’s because they blew a 7-0 lead.

If the Phils fail to make the playoffs, they will look back to their performance against the Marlins as the reason why. The Phils are 7-9 against Miami. Atlanta is 15-4 against the Marlins. The Mets are 11-4. Washington is 10-3.

Sunday's loss left the Phils 1½ games back in the wild-card race.

“It’s very frustrating,” Hoskins said. “You often hear you’re playing against yourself, right? If we play our game, we obviously can beat any team. We swept the Cubs, we swept the Red Sox on the road. Yeah, it’s tough. This is just a different place to play here. Credit to those guys. They came up with some big hits in some big situations off Noles and they … I don’t really have much more to say.”

Kapler, already agitated by Cesar Hernandez' lack of hustle in the game, was also at a loss for words when asked about his team’s struggles against the Marlins.

“Whatever the reason, we have to find a way to win these baseball games,” he said.

So, how do the Phillies avoid a similar letdown against the Pirates, who are 11-30 since the All-Star break? How do they do it without having Nola go to the mound in the series? Surely, Harper's return should help.

“We remind them how good they are, how much they're capable of, how much confidence we have in them,” Kapler said. “Everybody in the clubhouse knows that it's all of our responsibilities to step up to the plate and be stronger and be better.”

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Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

Zack Wheeler's floor a huge boost for Phillies, but that ceiling ...

For long stretches in each of the last two seasons, Zack Wheeler was every bit as effective as Aaron Nola.

Wheeler had four terrific months in 2018, posting a 2.52 ERA over his final 20 starts beginning on June 1.

In 2019, he found his groove right around midseason, pitching to a 3.04 ERA over his final 16 starts.

When you hear the phrase "untapped potential" in relation to Wheeler, this is what it means. It means that if he can pitch like this a bit more consistently — four good months instead of two — he can be a legitimate ace.

If he can't? Well then, if you trust his stuff and his results the last two years, you're getting no worse than a low-end No. 2 starter. Wheeler has made 60 starts the last two seasons with a 3.65 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, a strikeout per inning and less than a home run per nine.

Those numbers might not jump off the page, but they are impressive when you consider the surge in home runs in 2019 and especially so when considering his workload.

Wheeler is one of only 12 pitchers to reach 375 combined innings the last two seasons. The others are Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Aaron Nola, Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer, Jose Berrios, Miles Mikolas and Mike Leake.

In 2019, Wheeler made 18 quality starts (at least six innings with three earned runs or fewer). Nola also made 18. Zach Eflin had 14, Jake Arrieta had 10 and no other Phillie was in double-digits.

When Nola did not start a game for the Phillies in 2019, they received a quality start 31 percent of the time — less than once every three games.

Wheeler obviously helps with that. Think back to late last season when the Phillies could generate no momentum and had such a smaller chance to win when anyone was on the mound other than their ace. Wheeler changes that. He offers more of a chance for series wins, sweeps, actual winning streaks.

He also brings velocity, something the Phillies' rotation has sorely lacked for years. Wheeler's four-seam fastball averaged a career-best 96.7 mph last season, fourth-fastest in the majors behind Noah Syndergaard, Cole and deGrom.

The Phillies have never had a starting pitcher throw at least 100 innings in a season and average better than 95 mph with his fastball. Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez came the closest. Wheeler has done it comfortably in back-to-back seasons.

Velocity is not the only thing, especially these days when so many have it, but it is obviously still a major part of missing bats and getting outs. Because Wheeler has 3 or 4 mph more on his fastball than Nola, and because he can locate significantly better than Pivetta or Velasquez, he offers the Phillies' rotation a different, much-needed look.

This is not to say Wheeler comes without flaws or concerns. He hasn't yet ripped off a string of strong seasons. Two is a start and the Phillies are banking on it continuing.

He hasn't been a Top 10 Cy Young finisher, though he should have been in '18.

He's never reached 200 innings in a season, though some of that was because of caution the Mets exercised with him.

And Wheeler, despite the velo, has gone through plenty of multi-start stretches where he's been hit hard and doesn't miss many bats, in a way you don't see with the tippy-top guys like Scherzer and deGrom (which Wheeler is not).

He had three starts in a row like that last August and two straight in June.

But Wheeler is as capable of 7 innings, 1 run, 11 strikeouts as any pitcher in either league. When he's on, he can be so, so good. He went at least seven innings 15 times last season and allowed one or no runs in seven of them.

This one addition will not boost the Phillies to 90 wins, but it's the first giant step to another critical offseason.



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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

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At the Yard podcast: Reacting to the huge Zack Wheeler news

Ricky Bottalico and Corey Seidman react to the big news of the Phillies agreeing to a five-year deal with Zack Wheeler on the latest At The Yard podcast.

They also discuss the possibility of the Phillies signing Didi Gregorius, Cole Hamels heading to the Braves, and much more.

• Initial impressions of the signing
• What the guys like most about Wheeler
• Was this the right price?
• Bittersweet day with Hamels to Braves
• Phillies still need to add another good SP
• One Wheeler concern
• The market for Anthony Rendon



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