The Phillies lost to baseball’s second-worst team Friday night.
They also lost to the hottest team in baseball.
No, this wasn’t some sort of bizarro world doubleheader. Kicking off a team-friendly portion of the schedule that will see them play 19 of 24 games at Citizens Bank Park, a twist of fortune that even manager Rob Thomson conceded was a splendid chance to right the ship, the Royals ambushed the Phils, 7-5.
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It was just Kansas City’s 36th win of the year, but the last seven have come in succession. Yes, baseball can be a funny game.
As disappointing as the outcome was, the Phillies have a larger concern as a team that made it to the World Series last year continues to scramble to secure a wild card spot in the playoffs: Aaron Nola.
The franchise’s designated Opening Day starter, a pitcher who tied Curt Schilling night with his 226th Phillies start, seventh of the all-time franchise list, is still struggling to finds himself.
Here are the numbers, plain and unadorned:
He pitched 5.1 innings against the Royals. He gave up eight hits, two of them homers, and five earned runs. His ERA is 4.58.
In his last 10 starts, his ERA is 4.96.
In his last five starts, it’s 5.64.
“The first thing is some deep counts, getting behind in the count,” manager Rob Thomson said. “The two home runs, he got balls up in the zone. When he makes mistakes, they’re taking advantage of it. That’s about it.”
Asked for clarification, Thomson confirmed that he wasn’t suggesting that Nola is making more mistakes this season, just that the ones he does make are getting hit more frequently. “Every pitcher makes mistakes during the course of the game,” he said. “Sometimes they wear it and sometime they don’t. I think this is just one of those years when he’s not getting away with mistakes.”
Is it possible that Nola is really just being pranked that cruelly by the baseball gods? At first glance, it seems to defy belief. On the other hand, there are some starting pitchers who go entire seasons getting dramatically less run support than the other members of the rotation. And some secondary numbers seem to suggest that his command isn’t off by much. Against the Royals, he walked one and struck out eight. In those last five games, the ratio is 4:33.
“The last couple games I’ve had leads and haven’t been able to hold onto them,” Nola said. “I’ve got to be better.”
He agreed with Thomson, that an abnormally high number of his mistakes are coming back to bite him. He’s given up 26 homers already this season, one short of his career high set in 2019.
Among the ripple effects of acquiring veteran righthander Michael Lorenzen from the Tigers on Tuesday is that it allows manager Rob Thomson to go to a six-man rotation for the time being, although it’s unclear how that will specifically affect Nola,
The Phillies are in the early stages of a stretch during which they’re scheduled to play 17 straight days, with their next off day on August 14.
“Right now, what we’re trying to do is give (the starters) as much recovery time as we can,” Thomson said. “Then we have the off day, Toronto for two games and another off day and we’ll have to kind of re-tool. Because you don’t want your starters to be off too long and get too much rest. There’s kind of a fine line there, so we’ll figure it out at that point.”
The most obvious solution would be to skip over one of the current starters (Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, Taijuan Walker, Ranger Sanchez, Cristopher Sanchez or Lorenzen) and have them pitch out of the bullpen temporarily.
Another, more creative, approach could be to piggyback two of the starters. Thomson, in fact, volunteered that Sanchez (97.0) and Lorenzen (113.2) have both surpassed or are approaching their career highs in innings pitched. Sanchez logged a total of 75.2 IP for as a Rays minor leaguer in 2019 and Lorenzen, who was a reliever earlier in his career, topped out at 120.2 in the Reds system in 2014. “That could be an option, to piggyback those two and kind of conserve some innings,” he noted.
NOTES ON A SCORECARD
The Phillies have now played eight of 14 consecutive games against teams that are either in last place or coming off deep slumps. They are now 4-4 in that stretch after losing two of three to the Pirates, winning three of four from the Marlins (who had recently dropped 10 of 11) and now losing the series opener to Kansas City. They have two more games against the Royals before playing four against the Nationals.
Royals RHP Alex Marsh (0-5, 6.75) vs. LHP Cristopher Sanchez (0-3, 2.66)
RHP Zack Greinke (1-11, 5.32) vs. RHP Taijuan Walker (12-4, 3.99)