The Phillies split a doubleheader with the New York Yankees on Wednesday night, but it could have been so much better.
The Phils wasted a gem from Aaron Nola and lost the nightcap, 3-1. They didn't hit in that game, and the bullpen imploded once again.
The Yankees (9-2) rallied for two runs against Tommy Hunter in the top of the seventh in Game 2 to break a 1-1 tie.
Hunter faced five batters and retired none.
If you're keeping score at home, the Phillies' bullpen so far has allowed 17 earned runs in 16⅔ innings. That's a 9.18 ERA. Opposing teams are hitting .338 against Phillies relievers. Needless to say, that's awful.
Manager Joe Girardi remains optimistic that the bullpen will improve as this season, shortened to 60 games by the COVID-19 pandemic, continues to unfold.
"We had a quick spring then a seven-day layoff where no one pitched," Girardi said. "It's hard to evaluate what we're going to get moving forward. They haven't had consistent work and it's hard to be sharp when that happens and we're playing teams that have been playing every day. I believe we'll get better, (pitching coach) Bryan (Price) believes we'll get better and we'll get it done."
The Phillies, 2-4 after six games, showed off the strength area of their ballclub in the doubleheader.
We're talking about the 1-2 punch of Zack Wheeler and Nola in their starting rotation.
Wheeler pitched six innings of three-run ball and the Phillies got lots of offense in winning the opener, 11-7. It should not have been that close, however. Girardi lifted Wheeler with an eight-run lead after six innings. The Yankees jumped lefty Austin Davis for four runs in the bottom of the seventh before Hector Neris nailed down a one-pitch save in a game in which he should never have been needed. The appearance prevented him from pitching in Game 2 and that was a killer.
Wheeler is 2-0 in as many starts with his new club and he's loving life throwing to J.T. Realmuto.
Because of COVID-19 protocols, both games of the doubleheader were seven-inning affairs.
The offense was not as robust in the nightcap, but Nola was brilliant and that was a really good development for this club. The right-hander had struggled in his previous eight starts dating to last August. He was 0-5 (and the team was 0-8 in those games) with a 5.44 ERA over that span.
Nola rebounded in a big way Wednesday night. He looked much like the guy who finished third in the National League Cy Young voting in 2018. Nola's fastball had life — he hit 95 mph on the gun — and his breaking ball and changeup were sharp. He held the Yankees to three hits and a run over six innings. He walked none and struck out 12. The only run Nola allowed came on a first-pitch homer by Luke Voit in the second inning. Voit was sitting breaking ball, got one and clubbed it 420 feet to left. Otherwise, Nola was brilliant.
Because Nola was pitching for only the second time this season, and he was doing it on 12 days' rest, Girardi lifted the right-hander at 88 pitches and entrusted a tie game to Hunter in the seventh.
"The long layoff had everything to do with it," Girardi said of his decision to lift Nola. "Hopefully, we'll get him to around 100 (pitches) next time. You're facing that (Yankees) team, they're stressful innings. Even if you're not giving up a lot, they're stressful innings. Long layoff, second start, you can't jeopardize his health. I have a responsibility to the organization and the fans to win games, but I also have a responsibility to the health of our players. This is their living. A lot of times you have to protect players from themselves and I take that very seriously."
Hunter struggled from the outset. He gave up three straight hits — two singles and a double — as the Yankees broke the tie and took a 2-1 lead. Hunter then hit a batter and allowed another hit as the Yankees went up, 3-1.
Obviously, the bullpen hurt the Phillies in Game 2. But so, too, did a lack of offense in a game in which the Yankees employed their bullpen for all seven innings. All of this conspired against Nola.
And one had to wonder what might have been hadn't Neris been needed in Game 1. He, instead of Hunter, would have been used in the top of the seventh. It's customary to use your closer in the top of the final inning in a tie game at home and Girardi confirmed he would have done that.
"Unfortunately, we had to use Hector in the first game," Girardi said. "It's not what I wanted to do but they were one baserunner away from having the tying run at the plate. We know the power they have. It's not what I wanted to do, but when you have a chance to win a game, you have to win the game."
The Phils should have won two games. Nola deserved better.
"Yeah," Girardi said, acknowledging the missed opportunity. "We win the first game then get a brilliant game by Aaron Nola. But we know how good they are on the other side.
"I still think we can take a lot of good from that game even though we didn't win it. You feel good where Aaron Nola is at. You feel good about where Zack Wheeler is at. Jake Arrieta pitched well the other night. We need to continue to build on that. If you get really good starting pitching all the time, you're going to win a lot of games."