Phillies let Justin Verlander off the hook, can't buy a hit in big spots right now


Justin Verlander did not have his best stuff against the Phillies Thursday night. He gave up a one-run lead to the first batter he faced, he put seven men on base through three innings and many of his early misses were non-competitive, clearly balls out of the hand.

But the Phillies let him off the hook in their Game 5 loss. If they come through just once in their eight opportunities against him with men on base, Verlander doesn't get the monkey off his back and doesn't win his first World Series game in his ninth try.

And maybe the Phillies don't head back to Houston down three games to two after a 3-2 loss, needing consecutive road wins to end their season with champagne.

The Phils have been brutal with runners in scoring position for most of this World Series. J.T. Realmuto hit a two-run double off of Verlander to tie Game 1 in the fifth inning, then the Phillies went 0 for 20 with runners in scoring position until Jean Segura singled in a run in the eighth inning of Game 5.

"We just couldn't find it," manager Rob Thomson said after the Phillies dropped a second straight game to the Astros to trail a series for the first time this postseason. "You've got to get those guys (like Verlander) early, those good pitchers. He's one of 'em. We didn't get it done.

"That's baseball. It's the ebbs and flows of the game and sometimes you go through times when you don't hit with runners in scoring position and then three days later everybody's getting hits. So we've just got to keep battling, that's all."

Verlander began incorporating more sliders against the Phillies in the third inning and that's when he settled in. He retired Bryson Stott to end the third, struck out Brandon Marsh and Kyle Schwarber looking in a 1-2-3 fourth and punched out two more in the fifth, his final inning. His outing was essentially the inverse of his Game 1, when he breezily retired the first nine Phillies he faced before allowing a string of hits in the fourth and fifth innings to blow a five-run lead.

There was no Phillies comeback in Game 5. They had a great chance to tie or take a lead in the bottom of the eighth with one out and runners on the corners, down a run, but Marsh struck out in a poor at-bat and Schwarber laced a ball down the first-base line that was snared on a hop by Trey Mancini, who had just entered the game the prior half-inning.

Astros relievers Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly allowed just one run after Verlander departed, with Abreu and Pressly turning in particularly important performances.

"They have great starting pitching. Every guy they bring in out of the 'pen is nasty and has been outstanding throughout the whole postseason," said Rhys Hoskins, who was 0 for 5 with four strikeouts. "We're missing some pitches. I'm sure we are. But I think, for the most part, they are making their pitches. It's tough to hit when they are."

Mancini's play wasn't the Astros' only game-saving grab. Center fielder Chas McCormick made a phenomenal leaping catch at the wall in right-center to rob Realmuto of at least two bases and maybe three with one out in the ninth inning of a one-run game.

Those balls fell in for the Phillies earlier in this playoff run. Maybe the magic is running out.

"We had some big opportunities," Bryce Harper said. "We weren't able to cash in like we wanted to. We've got to flush that game and get ready for two more in Houston.

"They've been in this situation. They've been really good the last couple of years. We've got a battle in front of us."

It has to be a concern for the Phillies that Harper may not see many pitches to hit in Houston. He was walked twice Thursday, doubled in his third plate appearance, popped out to third base in the seventh and was hit by a pitch in the ninth. 

Nick Castellanos is behind Harper in the lineup but isn't hitting and hasn't homered since the end of August. In any big spot, the calculation has to be pretty easy for Dusty Baker, his pitchers and catchers. Don't let Harper beat you. Why would you at this point?

"They've got good pitching," Thomson said. "Let's face that. We've just got to keep it simple, use the field, stay on the baseball. That's about it."

The Phillies were favored to win the World Series after taking Game 1 and again after winning Game 3, but it's now Houston's title to lose. If the Phillies can pull this off, it will be an epic, unforgettable comeback on the grandest stage. 

The degree of difficulty will be extremely high. The Phillies get Framber Valdez and his filthy sinker-curveball combination in Game 6 Saturday. Their offense was almost as anemic in Game 2 vs. Valdez as it was against Cristian Javier in the Game 4 no-hitter.

"These guys will show up, I guarantee it," Thomson said. "They're going to fight to the end, for sure."

We’ll see Saturday whether they can extend the end by one more night.

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