The Phillies are pretty much down to two starting pitchers.
Vince Velasquez pitched poorly again Saturday night in a 15-3 loss to the Braves. Three batters into the game, he and the Phils trailed by two on Freddie Freeman’s home run, and Atlanta’s lead grew to six by the time Joe Girardi removed Velasquez with one out in the third inning.
"We need more from our guys," Girardi said. "It’s not a lack of effort or them not doing the work, but we just need more."
Being beaten by Freeman is one thing. Being beaten by Abraham Almonte is another. Almonte, a 32-year-old journeyman outfielder with a .235 batting average and 20 homers in nearly 1,300 career plate appearances, blasted a solo shot off of Velasquez in the second and hit a two-out, two-run single against Brandon Kintzler in the third to break the game open.
By the eighth inning, Ronald Torreyes was on the mound.
"It is," Girardi said when asked if it's embarrassing to need a position player to pick up five outs. "But I didn’t really want to use any of the other guys we had down there. We’re in the midst of 20 (games) in a row."
Girardi did accomplish the goal of avoiding all of his relievers in a blowout except Kintzler, Cristopher Sanchez and Enyel De Los Santos, the three lowest-leverage arms in the ‘pen.
Velasquez has allowed 49 earned runs in 61⅔ innings in 2021 to teams other than the Marlins. That’s a 7.15 ERA against the rest of the league. He has failed to make it out of the third inning in two of his last three starts.
Velasquez was not happy about being pulled after recording just seven outs and cited a recent start against the Padres when he surrendered five early runs but settled in to complete six innings. Whether he remained in this game was immaterial to the result.
The Phillies’ rotation is depleted. They couldn’t afford to lose any of their top three starting pitchers for any length of time, and right now, they’re without Zach Eflin, who is dealing with knee tendinitis. It means the Phils have Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, but Velasquez, Matt Moore and Spencer Howard behind them. Getting even five innings out Velasquez, Moore or Howard is viewed as a plus, so it’s hard to see the Phils making a credible run without reinforcements in the rotation.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is in a difficult and tricky position. The Phillies are a game under .500. They’re tied with the Braves for second in the NL East, four games behind the Mets. In any other division, the Phillies would be buried and buying wouldn’t be a thought. Dombrowski acknowledged the unique position Saturday.
“We're fortunate we're where we are in one sense,” he said before the Phils got clobbered. “We're .500 and we're four games out of first place. And there's clubs I'm talking to that have a slightly better record, but they're a lot further back.”
Let’s say the Phillies go out and get Craig Kimbrel. Could that move close the gap on the Mets, or put the Phils in a meaningfully better position than the Braves? It would correct one problem, sure, but the Phillies would still have a thin rotation without length from two spots and a bad defense, which committed two more errors Saturday.
They could buy and still miss the playoffs or finish below .500. In other cities, it might be an unnecessary risk. Here and now, trying to win the division and end a nine-year playoff drought would mean more. The answer is still not clear six days from the deadline.
“We want to try to win our division if we can. We're within reach,” Dombrowski said. “We have ownership support in trying to make things happen.”
The Phillies tried over the offseason to shore up the back of their rotation by signing Moore and Chase Anderson to one-year contracts worth $3 million and $4 million, respectively. Neither move has panned out. Anderson, who had been on the COVID-related IL since early June, was activated Sunday.
Velasquez was not in the rotation to begin the season but made his way there quickly out of necessity. After pleasantly surprising for a brief period, he’s reverted to his walk-prone, homer-prone ways.
Even with the early six-run deficit Saturday night, the Phillies had a chance to get back into the game when they loaded the bases on walks with nobody out in the fourth inning. The rally was killed when Didi Gregorius tapped into an easy 1-2-3 double play and Travis Jankowski popped up to shallow left.
Gregorius also committed his 10th error of the season in just his 49th game. The other eight major-league shortstops with double-digit errors this season have played at least 29 more games than Gregorius.
"Whether we add people or don’t add people, we have to play better," Girardi said.
The Phillies and Braves wrap up their four-game series Sunday afternoon at 1:05 when Nola opposes right-hander Touki Toussaint.