Phillies Analysis

Walker still searching for his ‘bread-and-butter' splitter in loss to D-backs

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Rob Thomson remembers. Of course he does. The Phillies manager will never forget the one that got away last October. How his team needed just one win in two games against the Diamondbacks to go back to the World Series. One win in two tries at home, where they’d been all but invincible throughout the playoffs. One stinking win.

They didn’t get it, of course. The starting pitching (Aaron Nola and Ranger Suarez had a combined 7.00 earned run average) and the bats (.175 average and just 2-for-17 with runners in scoring position) went cold at just the wrong time. It happens. Thomson had no control over that, but still second guesses himself for some of his in-game decisions. Like letting struggling Johan Rojas bat – and strike out – with the bases loaded and two down in the fourth inning of Game 7.

The Diamondbacks returned to Citizens Bank Park on Friday night for the first time since they sprayed champagne in the visitor’s clubhouse. That provided an easy, but lazy, revenge angle but Thomson wasn’t remotely concerned about results he can’t change.

Which is good because he has enough to worry about in the here and now. Like the enigma that is righthander Taijuan Walker, who was booed heartily by the Citizens Bank Park sellout crowd of 44,436 after allowing four runs on five hits – three of them homers – in four innings of a 5-4 loss to the Diamondbacks.

That pushed the rotation’s combined earned run average to 3.02, the highest it’s been since it stood at 3.09 after an April 14 loss to the Pirates.

Walker is now 3-3 with a 5.60 ERA.

“He struggled,” Thomson said plainly. “It just seemed like everything was hanging. He was getting behind in the count and having to come after people. And everything was up in the zone and hittable.

“But I know he’s working at it. And I know he cares. That’s why I have patience with him.”

Which is fine. But the manager said earlier this season, when asked about Walker, that whatever decision is made about him will be performance-based.

The hesitation is that there aren’t any clear alternatives at the moment. There are no pitchers in the system at the moment who are throwing so well that their success is all but screaming for a promotion.

And the obvious solution – putting Spencer Turnbull back in the rotation, a role he excelled in at the start of the season while Walker was on the injured list – also has drawbacks. Turnbull pitched a total of 57 innings, less than half in the majors, last year and not at all in 2022. The team will have to balance that risk against the fact that, even with sporadic work since being sent to the bullpen, his ERA is 2.63 after three shutout innings Friday night.

The Phillies have made it clear they don’t want to risk breaking him with a heavy workload, and he’s already at 51.1 innings this year.

Step One, the manager said, will be to sit down with Walker to ask him if he’s healthy.

Said Walker: “I feel healthy, so that will probably be my answer. I felt 100 percent fine. My arm felt really good (Friday).”

He believes the biggest issue continues to be that he doesn’t have command of his splitter, his best weapon for the last two years.

“The problem right now is that it’s not there,” he said. “It’s kind of been my bread-and-butter, my go-to pitch in tough situations. And right now it’s just not there. Obviously, I’m doing all I can to find it. But it really just isn’t there.

“It’s extremely frustrating. I’m busting my butt but I know I’ve got to clean my (stuff) up.”

Only nine of his 77 pitches Friday night were splitters. “Should he throw more?” Thomson asked rhetorically. “Yeah. But if it’s going to be up in the strike zone he probably shouldn’t."

If the manager is convinced Walker has no physical problems, all bets are off after that. Thomson said that even if he was considering taking the 31-year-old, who is in the second season of a 4-year, $72 million contract, out of the rotation he wouldn’t admit it publicly.

Walker’s velocity ticked down for the second straight game, topping out at 91.7 mile per hour according to baseballsavant.com. When that happened last year, he was skipped a start to see if the extra rest might help.

“I don’t know if we’re there yet,” Thomson said. “I’m sure he’ll make his next start. But, again, there are going to be a lot of conversations. That’s why I want to ask the question (about his health). Because it looks like he’s trying to create velocity. It looks like he’s just humping up and trying to throw as hard as he can instead of staying within himself and focusing on command and control. That’s just what I’m sensing. And that’s when he gets the misfires.”

There’s no need to panic. The season still hasn’t reached its midpoint and the Phillies continue to hold a comfortable lead in the NL East. At the same time, they’re now just 12-12 since May 24 and have seen their lead over the Braves sliced from 10 games to six in less than two weeks.

Walker gave up a solo homer to leftfielder Lourdes Guriel Jr. in the second. With one away in the third he walked centerfielder Corbin Carroll, who stole second. Catcher Gabriel Moreno and designated hitter Joc Pederson followed with back-to-back homers to center and Arizona never surrendered the lead.

Trea Turner drove in all but one of the Phillies runs with a two-run homer in the third and a bases-loaded infield single in the seventh. Nick Castellanos rounded out the scoring with a solo homer in the eighth.

That brought up Bryce Harper with the bases still loaded and just one out but, as the crowd roared in anticipation, the National League’s All-Star votes leader grounded into a 1-2-3 double play.

“We had our chances,” Thomson said.

It remains to be seen how many more Walker will get.

UP NEXT: Remaining matchups for the Diamondbacks series: LHP Tommy Henry (2-2, 6.23) vs. RHP Zack Wheeler (8-4, 2.84) Saturday at 4:05 p.m. and RHP Slade Cecconi (2-5, 5.90) vs. LHP Cristopher Sanchez in a 11:35 a.m. brunch special at 11:35 a.m.

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