Phillies

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

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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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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Drew Smyly puts Phillies in an early hole they can't overcome against Indians

Drew Smyly puts Phillies in an early hole they can't overcome against Indians

BOX SCORE 

CLEVELAND — The Phillies moved one step closer to being eliminated from postseason contention in a 5-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians on Friday night.

The loss dropped the Phillies 4 ½ games out in the wild-card chase and they could be five out depending on the outcome of the Milwaukee-Pittsburgh game.

There are just 10 games remaining.

Like the Phillies, Cleveland is in must-win mode. The Indians (91-63) entered the night tied with Tampa Bay for the second American League wild-card spot.

The Phillies did not get a good start from lefty Drew Smyly.

The Indians, meanwhile, got a very good one from right-hander Shane Bieber. He gave up two runs over 7 1/3 innings.

The Phillies are 78-74. They need to win four of their final 10 games to have their first winning season since 2011.

Smyly’s night

It wasn’t good. He walked the first batter in the bottom of the third inning and was lifted by manager Gabe Kapler.

Smyly allowed the first four batters in the bottom of the first inning to reach base on a walk and three hits. Two of them scored. He gave up two more runs in the second inning. Both were unearned after a throwing error by Rhys Hoskins.

Smyly did not appear happy when Kapler pulled him from the game. But eight base runners in two-plus innings was a little much and the bullpen was able to settle things down and keep the game close.

Bieber’s night

The All-Star right-hander improved to 15-7 and lowered his ERA to 3.23.

He struck out seven and walked none. It was the eighth time this season that he’d registered at least seven strikeouts and no walks.

Bieber is a product of the 2016 draft. The Indians picked him in the fourth round out of the University of California, Santa Barbara. That was a notable draft for the Phillies because they had the first overall pick. They selected outfielder Mickey Moniak with that pick. The Phils picked pitcher Kevin Gowdy in the second round, infielder Cole Stobbe in the third round and pitcher Jo Jo Romero in the fourth round, 15 picks ahead of Bieber. 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.

Carrasco comes up big

Carlos Carrasco, the former Phillies prospect who was traded to the Indians in the Cliff Lee deal a decade ago, registered a huge out when he retired Jay Bruce on a ground ball with runners on the corners to end the top of the eighth. Bruce could have tied the game with one swing, but Carrasco won the battle.

Carrasco is winning another battle, as well. He was treated for leukemia earlier this summer and has made it back to help the Indians’ playoff chase.

Carrasco stayed on for the ninth inning and got the save.

Scratched

Shortstop Jean Segura was a late scratch from the starting lineup. He has a sore left ankle. Maikel Franco was inserted into the lineup at third base and Scott Kingery moved over to shortstop. Franco drove in the Phillies’ runs with a double in the fifth.

Realmuto rests

Kapler gave J.T. Realmuto a rest at a crucial point of the season. The manager explained why (see story).

Up next

The series continues Saturday night. Jason Vargas (6-8, 4.48) pitches for the Phillies against Cleveland right-hander Zach Plesac (8-6, 3.64). Yes, he’s Dan’s nephew.



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