ARLINGTON, Texas - It unraveled, this time, in slow motion. Nick Pivetta's pitch count soared Thursday afternoon with 28 pitches in the third inning and 30 pitches in the fourth inning. The Phillies righthander had held Texas scoreless to that point, but he would not linger deep into this game, an 8-4 Rangers win. The burden, again, shifted to the bullpen.
Pivetta, in his fourth major-league start, threw a 93-mph fastball down and away for his 107th pitch. Elvis Andrus looked at it for strike three. There were two outs in the fifth inning. He needed one more for a chance at his first win.
Pete Mackanin emerged from the dugout.
"If I would have limited my pitches, I would have given myself a better chance to stay in," Pivetta said. "But I had way too many three-ball counts."
The Phillies manager wanted his lefthander, Joely Rodriguez. He faced young Nomar Mazara, 3 for 27 against lefties this season. A balk, a walk, two singles and a Ryan Rua homer later, the game was blown to pieces.
The Rangers have won nine straight. Rodriguez was the first Phillies reliever to allow seven or more earned runs in less than an inning since Hector Mercado in 2002. He now has a 6.97 ERA.
"I wanted to win the game," Mackanin said. "He was way up in pitch count. To me, it was an obvious move."
A Phillies starter failed to pitch six innings for the 23rd time in 38 games. The Phillies have lost 15 of their last 18 games. They are 14-24, their worst 38-game start to a season since 2000.
"We need to step it up," Mackanin said. "We're better than we're going through right now. But we need to execute. We need to play better. I can't make excuses. We have to hit better and pitch better."
Pivetta entered the fifth inning at 91 pitches. He was, in essence, a two-pitch pitcher Thursday in his final start before returning to the minors. His command was lackluster. He was not aided by a tight strike zone from umpire Mark Ripperger. He faced 20 batters and 11 worked three-ball counts.
The 24-year-old rookie did not pitch more than five innings in any of his four starts. He had a 5.12 ERA. With Aaron Nola returning to the rotation this weekend in Pittsburgh, Pivetta was optioned to triple-A Lehigh Valley after Thursday's game. The Phillies like his fastball. His breaking pitches need improvement.
"The biggest thing [I learned] is just how to be a true professional baseball player and how they handle themselves up here," Pivetta said. "There's a lot of difference."
Mackanin opted for Rodriguez because Pivetta had not been effective before during his third time through an opposing lineup. Hitters were 5 for 13 with two doubles and three home runs when facing Pivetta for a third time. Mazara, 22, rapped a double in the first inning on a Pivetta fastball. He is much worse against lefty pitchers (.501 OPS) than righties (.810 OPS) in his career. So Mackanin tried something else.
"It's tough," third baseman Maikel Franco said. "It's tough. It's really tough. Right now, everybody is trying to do their best. We are in trouble right now. We're in a little bit of trouble. We have to stay positive. Try to change the mentality. Try to change something."
Pivetta packed his bag for a return trip to the minors. The Phillies lost all four games he started. The bar is a little higher in the majors.
"I think I took a step in the right direction today," Pivetta said. "Unfortunately, I'm getting sent down, but I think I'll build on this so when I'm called up again I'll be able to stay up a lot longer."