ARLINGTON, Texas - As the Phillies' season devolved over three weeks, Zach Eflin represented one of the few dependable presences. He pitched well enough to win his three previous starts before Wednesday. The Phillies lost all three. He succeeded by throwing his fastball more than 70 percent of the time, a pitch that manager Pete Mackanin said Eflin could throw every time if it is right.
Nothing was right Wednesday night in a 9-3 Phillies loss that humbled the 23-year-old righthander. He encountered an aggressive Rangers lineup that pulverized the trusted fastball. They lashed 11 hits in four innings against Eflin. Seven of them were on fastballs. Many bisected home plate and scattered across the grass at Globe Life Park.
"I have to do my job," Eflin said. "I didn't do that tonight. That's where it all starts. It starts with the starting pitcher."
The Texas hitters looked quite comfortable. They reached a season high in hits before the fifth inning ended. The 17 hits surrendered weren't a high for the Phillies in 2017; they allowed 20 to the Mets in April.
There is uneasiness in the Phillies clubhouse. They have lost 14 of their last 17 games. Their 14-23 record ties the franchise's worst 37-game start since 2000. The 2015 Phillies, losers of 99 games, were also 14-23. No one expected a contender this season. The schedule has not been kind, but these Phillies were supposed to show a hint of improvement.
Instead, their young rotation has failed them.
"I sound like a broken record because I always talk about lack of command," Mackanin said. "The command isn't there. The ball is up in the zone. You have to have command of your secondary pitches. That's what they have to do. We've seen them do it before. It's early in the season. I'm not going to assume we're this bad. I know we're not."
The starters have posted a 4.90 ERA, one of the worst marks in baseball. They have failed to pitch six innings in 22 of 37 games. The strain has shifted to a bullpen that has underperformed. The result is a flawed group of arms crumbling in a stretch of constant challenges.
The pitching is not the sole problem. The Phillies lineup produced four double plays Wednesday in the game's first five innings. Maikel Franco was responsible for two of them. The defense suffered. For nine innings, the Phillies looked about as bad as they have all season.
Eflin could not stop the slide. The first three Rangers he saw reached base on two singles and a walk. He limited the damage to one run, but threw 30 pitches to record three outs, a sign that nothing would be simple for the righthander.
He appeared to have a path through the third with just one run allowed. There were two outs with the bases empty. Eflin plunked Joey Gallo with a faulty slider. Jared Hoying smashed a double down the right-field line that zipped underneath first baseman Tommy Joseph's glove. Delino DeShields bunted for a single. Eflin spiked a change-up that skipped to the backstop for a run. Then Shin-Soo Choo singled to right and plated two more runs.
"It was disappointing because I was counting on him to pitch the way he has been for his last few outings," Mackanin said. "He's been outstanding. He just couldn't get the ball down in the zone."
The Phillies have not won, but they have avoided being the victims of a blowout in recent weeks. There was no hiding Wednesday. By the end, Ty Kelly and Andres Blanco were the middle infielders, and it was a lost night.