Cole Irvin

Jake Arrieta struggles, offense sputters as first-place Braves give Phillies a painful reality check

Jake Arrieta struggles, offense sputters as first-place Braves give Phillies a painful reality check

Jake Arrieta was good for four innings on Friday night. But four innings isn’t going to cut it for a team desperately trying to stay in a playoff race despite holes in its starting rotation and bullpen.

The Phillies came home Friday night on the heels of four wins in five games against of pair of last-place clubs, Pittsburgh and Detroit. The road trip gave the Phils a little momentum and a little optimism entering their three-game series against the Altanta Braves. By the middle innings, the momentum and the optimism were gone. The NL East-leading Braves handed the Phillies a 9-2 loss to increase their lead over Phils to 6 ½ games.

“I think the Braves just got more big hits than us and made more pitches than us,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “It's that simple. Really not more than that.”

Kapler found himself in the crosshairs of the second-guessers when he went to rookie lefty Cole Irvin with the Phils trailing 5-1 in the top of the sixth. Irvin, a starter pressed into bullpen duty, was torched for four runs as the Braves pulled away. Irvin hit the first batter of the frame, Nick Markakis, on the wrist. (Markakis is headed back to Atlanta for tests and both he and manager Brian Snitker said, “It doesn’t look good.”) Later in the inning, Irvin walked in a pair of runs and some in the crowd booed loudly while others performed an Eagles chant.

Why didn’t Kapler use a more tested reliever to keep the game close in that situation?

Where was lefty Ranger Suarez, who has been such an eye-opener lately?

Kapler said Suarez, who threw 29 pitches Sunday and 17 on Wednesday, “needed another day.”

He went on to add that he liked Irvin in that spot. Irvin had pitched two scoreless innings the previous Friday in Pittsburgh.

“Ranger needed one more day,” Kapler said. “He’s fine. He’s just getting used to bullpen usage. He just needed one more day.

“But, even so, we have a ton of confidence in Cole. He's coming off a great outing. He was the guy who was there to give us length, get us through a couple of innings. It was the right part of the lineup to get a couple of innings out of him. It just didn't work out in our favor.”

Even if Irvin had kept the game close, it would have been difficult to imagine the Phillies having enough offense to overcome a four-run deficit. Despite their good road trip, they have averaged just 2.75 runs in the last four games. They had 12 hits Friday night and just two for extra-bases. One of those, a homer by Jean Segura, came in the seventh when the Phils were down 9-1. In one of the game’s most pivotal moments, with the Phils down by four runs in the bottom of the fifth, J.T. Realmuto grounded out weakly to second base with the bases loaded to end the inning. A big hit there might have been a game-changer.

“We had ground-ball singles,” Kapler said. “We weren't able to effectively solve (Braves starter Mike) Soroka. He was good. We put the ball on the ground. We found some holes. We just weren't able to get the big hit. That was the difference in the game. We weren't able to come up big in the moments where we had a chance to get one big ball in the gap or the seats. We couldn't come up with that one.”

Arrieta was tagged for four runs in the fifth as the Braves took control. He walked two in the inning and gave up a homer, a double and a single. Arrieta is pitching with a bone spur in his elbow and his stuff drops off in the middle innings. When it did, the Braves feasted.

“I was pretty much in control until the fifth and then I was physically just limited and not able to do what I was doing the first four innings,” Arrieta said. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s just what I’m dealing with.

“The movement, the action, the velocity in the first four innings was about as good as it’s been all year. And then it flips. It’s frustrating because that’s what I’ve been dealing with for the majority of the season. It’s not a good feeling.”

Is Arrieta re-thinking his desire to pitch through the ailment?

“I don’t want to stop,” he said. “The way the first four innings went, movement was great, command was really nice. It’s just frustrating that it compounded so quick. There’s nothing that I can really do about it.”

The Phils will send another question-mark pitcher to the mound on Saturday night. Zach Eflin complained of his body feeling heavy after lasting just four innings in his last start.

The trade deadline is Wednesday. This team needs to add pitching. But it also needs the pitching it has to step up.

“We just have to win games,” Arrieta said. “It’s easy to look outside of the clubhouse for solutions. I think we have more than enough talent to make it happen with the guys we have.”

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Phillies need a 5th and 6th starter this weekend; who could it be?

Phillies need a 5th and 6th starter this weekend; who could it be?

Updated: 9:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Consecutive rainouts Monday and Tuesday benefited the Phillies by giving J.T. Realmuto and Jay Bruce two additional days to recover from their injuries. Had the Phils played Tuesday night, both players would have been available to pinch-hit but would have likely needed pinch-runners. Realmuto will start one game of the Phillies’ day-night doubleheader Wednesday. 

Where it negatively affected the Phillies is in the starting rotation. The Phils don’t have a true No. 5 starter right now. Gabe Kapler said Monday that there is a belief within the organization that Vince Velasquez can fill that role, but it’s not a certainty that he’s returned to the rotation. If Velasquez is needed out of the bullpen Thursday or Friday, for example, he may not get the start Saturday. It’s TBD. 

And now, because the Phillies play twice on Wednesday, they’ll also need a starter for Sunday’s game. In effect, a team with no fifth starter needs a fifth and sixth starter this weekend. 

On Wednesday, it will be Zach Eflin in Game 1 and Jake Arrieta in Game 2. 

Nick Pivetta pitches Thursday. 

Aaron Nola pitches Friday. 

Then possibly Velasquez Saturday. 

On Sunday, the Phils will have to figure out something else because it would be short rest for both Arrieta and Eflin. 

Who are the options? Kapler said Tuesday that hot pitching prospect Adonis Medina, despite being on the 40-man roster, is not under consideration for a start this weekend. 

The organization likely does not feel he’s ready yet and doesn’t want to rush a young pitcher with promise just because it needs a spot starter this weekend. Plus, Medina is a trade chip, and you don’t want to do anything to ding his value by bringing him up before the time feels right. 

So there’s Velasquez, there’s Cole Irvin, there’s Enyel De Los Santos. Those are the three most realistic options. Irvin is still on the active roster and was ticketed for the ‘pen before Mother Nature intervened. 

De Los Santos made a six-inning start for Triple A Lehigh Valley on Sunday, so he’d be on turn this weekend. The Phillies don’t seem to love him as a starting pitcher, though. They haven’t turned to him when the need has arisen this season and when he has been promoted it has been as a reliever. More of a two-pitch pitcher, De Los Santos could ultimately find more success as a reliever. 

Drew Anderson, who started Tuesday for the IronPigs, is another swingman on the 40. There’s also Ranger Suarez. 

If the Phillies want to promote someone who’s not on the 40-man roster, 23-year-old Dominican right-hander Ramon Rosso is another option. He has pitched well in 11 starts this season, including a Triple A debut June 13 in which he struck out nine and did not allow an earned run over six innings.

The other options are using an opener or making a trade. It seems unlikely the Phillies will be able to complete a deal for an attractive starting pitcher by the weekend, but one name to keep in the back of your mind is Mike Leake. He’s a No. 4 starter who has alternated quick and efficient quality starts and clunkers throughout his career. He’s on a Mariners team committed to tearing things down and eager to trade high-priced veterans for seemingly whatever they can get, whether it’s salary relief or an interesting young player. Leake is owed $15 million next season and has a $5 million buyout in 2021, way too much for a pitcher his caliber. The Phillies are not going to want to commit $20 million to him just because he’s the most obtainable starting pitcher on the market this minute. But if the Mariners pick up a bulk of his remaining money a la Bruce, he could and should be considered as a rotation stabilizer, not as the missing piece. 

Fortunately for the Phillies, they face the lowly Marlins this weekend. If there is a team to lack starting pitching against, it is them. 

But again, it highlights the lack of quality options the Phillies have after their first four starting pitchers, who collectively have been just OK. The choice to not sign a veteran starter this offseason has predictably backfired. The team enters Wednesday 39-32, which is still an 89-win pace, but the more important point is that the Braves are surging and the Nationals have won 14 of 21 with a roster every bit as talented as the Phils’. 

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With so few options at back of rotation, where do Phillies turn?

With so few options at back of rotation, where do Phillies turn?

ATLANTA — A one-sentence summary of the Phillies' series finale Sunday against the Braves? Sean Rodriguez was by far their best pitcher.

The Phillies were blown out, 15-1, in a game when they used an opener for the second time this season (see observations). Gabe Kapler told Vince Velasquez late Saturday night that he would get the "start," and the plan was to ride Velasquez for 50 to 60 pitches before turning to lefty Cole Irvin.

Velasquez, Irvin, Jerad Eickhoff, none of them came close to getting the job done. All three allowed consistently hard, loud contact. The Braves had nine extra-base hits and three more deep fly balls crushed to the warning track.

"We knew we were gonna bring Cole, we knew we had length out of Jerad and thought we could get 50 to 60 pitches out of Vince," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We did all those things, we just didn't do it effectively."

It was ugly from start to finish, and it again highlighted the Phillies' need to go get a starting pitcher right now. Not on July 10, not on July 20, not on July 31 but now. You can't force another team to trade with you, but let's forget for a minute about the top end of the market, the tier of Matt Boyd, Mike Minor, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Greinke. The Phillies just need another reliable arm that can give them six innings, get through a lineup three times. Maybe that arm comes from the minor-league system.

While it's true that most teams have a shaky fifth starter, most teams also have a few trustworthy arms ahead of them in the rotation. The Phillies do not right now. Aaron Nola has a 4.89 ERA. Jake Arrieta has a 4.31 ERA. Nick Pivetta is trending in the right direction, and Zach Eflin has been very good for much of the season, but this quartet has not collectively performed like a playoff rotation.

One thing looks abundantly clear, though: The Phillies cannot continue with the opener experiment with this personnel. Velasquez doesn't have the command, Irvin and Eickhoff don't have the stuff to keep the Phillies in the game against a lineup as potent as the Braves'.

What happens Friday when this rotation spot comes up again?

"We have a lot of work to do, a lot of discussions to have," Kapler said. "No question about it, we have to be better and we'll discuss it more on the flight to Washington, D.C., and get our ducks in a row.

"We haven't pitched our best recently. I think that we have a better level of play in us in totality and I have trust in our starting pitchers — Nick, Jake, Nola, obviously Eflin has been outstanding. We have a group of guys who have a track record of success and Nick has been sensational since he's back from the minor leagues. There's some confidence there."

The Phils clearly don't have a ton of confidence in Velasquez, Irvin or Eickhoff as starting pitchers or else one of them would have the No. 5 starter's job. Actions always speak louder than words.

Irvin's ERA is 6.84, Eickhoff has allowed 18 home runs in his last 28 innings, and Velasquez hasn't been able to take his team deep into games.

Who is next? Ranger Suarez? Enyel De Los Santos? Ramon Rosso? Adonis Medina? The decision won't be made for several days.

"I think we'll rebound from this with ease," Velasquez said. "I think it's just one of those games where these guys are hot and we've got to tip our caps off to them and keep moving forward. 

"They had a solid month, and we're right on their tails. I don't think it's one of those things where we should necessarily give up as a pitching staff or as an offensive team."

The Braves have been the hottest team in the NL, winning 24 of their last 34 games. And Velasquez does have a point — as well as Atlanta has played of late, as many injuries as the Phillies have, the deficit is only 2½ games. They can make that up in a series. 

But to do so, they need the starting staff to carry them for a bit. It hasn't been able to the way it was the first half of 2018. With so many key relievers injured, with Andrew McCutchen out for the season and Jay Bruce and J.T. Realmuto banged up, that is the unit that must step up. 

Can they do it? Can they keep the Phillies in the game against Patrick Corbin Monday, Max Scherzer Wednesday and Stephen Strasburg Thursday? If not, the gap between the Phillies and the Braves will only grow wider.

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