When Thursday's third inning ended, Chase Utley was so fooled by a Zack Wheeler curveball, he lost control of his bat in the direction of the 23-year-old New York Mets pitcher.
Some fans gasped. Wheeler dodged the wooden missile. The teams changed sides, and a 4-1 Mets victory sputtered to an unsurprising conclusion.
The Phillies generated late-night excitement Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park with a comeback win capped by Ryan Howard's mammoth three-run homer. But this is an inconsistent team, and one day does not often carry into the next.
"So far we haven't put it together," catcher Carlos Ruiz said. "We have to fix that. We have to stay strong, come with a different mentality."
There are holes in the pitching staff, which forced 25-year-old righthander David Buchanan into a big-league rotation. Buchanan allowed four runs (three earned) in 62/3 innings. The roster lacks depth, which meant Cesar Hernandez started his seventh consecutive game at third base. That is a position he learned during a crash course last month at double-A Reading.
Buchanan, making his second-major league start, was not equipped to overcome mistakes. He grooved a high fastball to Chris Young in the fourth. The Mets outfielder slammed a two-run homer.
In the fifth, the Phillies committed an error, picked the wrong bag on a fielder's choice, and issued a bases-loaded walk. Hernandez was at fault in the field; he booted a routine grounder and failed to tag the lead runner headed for third on another bouncer.
Hernandez, often praised for his offensive acumen, is not an ideal fit at third. This is an "opportunity to gain experience" for Hernandez, Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said. That showed.
"It's a little lack of experience," Sandberg said. "He'll learn from some mistakes tonight."
The Phillies are not sure how long Cody Asche will be absent with a strained left hamstring. They lost Freddy Galvis to a fractured collarbone. They jettisoned Kevin Frandsen and Jayson Nix, two veterans who could man the position. Reid Brignac is covered in mothballs after just six plate appearances (zero starts) in three weeks.
Front-office personnel appear reluctant to promote top prospect Maikel Franco until the 21-year-old produces more at triple-A Lehigh Valley. Franco doubled and tripled Thursday; he entered the day with a .232 batting average and .659 OPS.
Sandberg said the decision-makers could be swayed by a handful of quality games. There is time; Asche is likely to require a minor-league rehabilitation assignment at some point.
"I think it's just waiting for the right opportunity for Franco to be consistent," Sandberg said, "and to be ready for the challenge and be ready for the opportunity."
But Hernandez's blunders could hasten a change. He was 1 for 3 with a strikeout. His batting average is .146 and OPS is .449.
The rest of the lineup was no better. It succumbed to Wheeler, a pitcher prone to breakdowns in command. The Phillies have lost six straight home games to the Mets for the first time since 1971. They struck out a season-high 15 times against Mets pitchers. Howard struck out four times, the last of which ended it all.
Wheeler retired 14 consecutive Phillies from the second inning to the seventh until Marlon Byrd smashed a home run to right. That ended Wheeler's night at 108 pitches, and it was a confidence boost for a young pitcher still honing his craft at the highest level.
He struck out seven in the first three innings. Wheeler did not walk a batter for just the third time in 28 career starts.
Wheeler was not drafted or signed by the Mets. He went to the organization from San Francisco in a July deadline deal three summers ago for Carlos Beltran. New York traded Beltran, one of its high-paid stars from an era of success, because it did not expect to compete in the near future. The Phillies could encounter a similar scenario this summer with numerous veteran players. They will be lucky to fetch a talent like Wheeler.