Days like these make you wonder. How can the Phillies possibly go from worst to first or even a wild-card playoff berth when they are sending Ben Lively to the mound every fifth day? How can they possibly keep up their current pace when they have a catching tandem that cannot hit a lick and has its share of problems defensively, too? How can they keep striking out so often and keep winning? And, finally, aren’t the Arizona Diamondbacks the perfect example of what is going to happen to the Phillies when the strength of schedule intensifies?
Maybe that’s an overreaction to the 8-2 beating the Diamondbacks pinned on Lively and the Phillies in the series finale Thursday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. On the other hand, it does not make the problems listed above any less real.
Let’s start with Lively, since the first month of the season has revealed he is the weakest link in manager Gabe Kapler’s starting rotation. Before the top of the third inning was over Thursday, the Phillies’ chances of winning the series had gone from slim to none because the 26-year-old righthander was serving up pitches the Diamondbacks pounded for five extra-base hits, including a couple of home runs by Jarrod Dyson and Nick Ahmed – two guys batting below .200.
The Phillies have won three of Lively’s five starts this season, and in two of the three wins Lively has allowed three or fewer runs. However, Lively has pitched through the sixth inning only once. Through his 23 2/3 innings, he has allowed 34 hits. He has the highest ERA of any player on the active roster at 6.85, as long as you don’t include the one-inning outing by utility man Pedro Florimon during the season-opening series in Atlanta.
Overall, that’s not good enough, but Lively said he had a reason for being bad against the Diamondbacks.
“I couldn’t get loose and I just felt off,” the pitcher said. “Everything kind of leaked over the middle of the plate, and that’s what happens.”
Lively said he had a stiff lower back, but he did not think it was a big deal. It was certainly a bad deal for the Phillies in this game.
“I couldn’t follow through that well and that’s what happens when I can’t follow through,” Lively said. “Balls come back across the middle and they get hit pretty hard.”
Unsurprisingly, Kapler decided to see the glass as half-full after the loss.
“I learned today how resilient we are,” the manager said. “I also learned that the Diamondbacks are a good club. There’s a really good lineup over there and a very athletic defense on the infield and in the outfield. We saw that. It’s a very challenging middle of the lineup. If you don’t have your best stuff they’re going to punish you.”
Lively did not even have his mediocre stuff and, back problems or not, his job security probably hinges on the return of Jerad Eickhoff from the disabled list. Eickhoff, out with a lat injury since the start of the season, is expected to begin a rehab next month. Maybe that makes the back of the Phillies rotation better, but Eickhoff has much to prove, too.
Kapler decided he had seen enough of Lively’s fifth start when the righthander walked the opposing pitcher with one out in the third inning. Kapler called in Drew Hutchison from the bullpen and the reliever immediately gave up a two-run home run that put the Phillies in an eight-run hole. The game was beyond saving, but Hutchison did at least save the bullpen for the weekend series against Atlanta by covering 3 2/3 innings without surrendering another run.
“A three-game series is no indication that one team is better than the other,” Kapler said. “We can definitely play with those guys. We can play with anybody in this league. I feel very confident in our team right now.”
Even the manager admitted, however, that his catching duo of Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro is having its share of problems. After going a combined 0-for-5 with a couple of strikeouts Thursday, they are hitting a combined .174 (16 for 92) with 42 K’s. They also have a combined seven errors.
“We just don’t have enough information,” Kapler said. “Knapp has a history of [getting] on base, he has a history of working counts, and he has power. Alfaro has a tremendous amount of power as well. I’m not concerned about the offensive production of our catchers. It hasn’t been great. There’s no question about that, but we don’t have enough information. We believe in our guys. I personally believe in our guys.”
That’s reasonable. The Phillies are still 15-9 and only a half-game behind the first-place New York Mets in the NL East. Days like Thursday just make you wonder if it can last.