ATLANTA — The first 15 pitches Ben Lively threw Friday night supplied the latest reminder of what will consume the Phillies’ front office this winter. They will finish this season with one guaranteed arm in their 2018 rotation. The rest is a mishmash of young pitchers with similar profiles and limited success.
Lively, until Friday’s 7-2 loss to the Braves, had generated the best results among the various pitchers the Phillies have auditioned for their rotation. Then the first five Braves to face him at SunTrust Park scored. The beginning to this abbreviated, final road trip soured.
“The big thing in my game is my fastball,” Lively said. “It doesn’t help when the fastball is fading toward the middle. Just one of those days.”
The Phillies are encouraged by their now-potent lineup filled with young hitters. It is possible that they outslug their opponents more often in 2018 than in 2017. But, on nights like Friday when the starter digs such a large hole, the promise is sucked from the offense. Aaron Nola is the only starter with a sub-4.00 ERA. The rest, sorted by games started: 4.71, 6.57, 4.73, 5.13, 4.35, 6.16, 4.69, 4.14, 12.27 and 7.20.
One pitcher, Nola, will throw enough innings this season to qualify for the ERA title. That has happened just three other times in non-strike-shortened seasons since 1901. If the Phillies stay in rotation for the remainder of the season, it will mark the first time since 1946 that one of their pitchers did not reach 28 starts.
So it extends beyond a quality issue. The Phillies need innings.
Lively at least provided that Friday. He logged five innings to save the bullpen. Lively does not miss many bats — he has accumulated 51 strikeouts in 82 2/3 innings — and that is something that could compromise him. Atlanta cracked five hits in those first 15 pitches Friday night. Kurt Suzuki homered on a 91-mph fastball over the heart of home plate.
Pete Mackanin has praised Lively because of his wherewithal to overcome an average arsenal.
“I don’t want to get into a fight with him,” the Phillies manager said. “Because you’ll have to kill him before he gives up. You know what I mean?”
That’s an attribute not found in the numbers. But the numbers mean a great deal.
“Usually, you look at a guy for velocity or bite on his breaking balls or arm action on a change-up with good movement,” Mackanin said. “I don’t see a lot of that from him. But he’s as effective as anybody we have right now.”
Compounding the Phillies’ dilemma is the fact that every team in baseball will search for pitching upgrades this winter. Teams are loath to trade it. General managers are reluctant to pay for it. Developing it is a painstaking process that is one snapped ulnar collateral ligament from derailment.
Major-league starters in 2017 have averaged a half inning less per start than they did in 2011. Starting pitchers posted a 3.82 ERA in 2014. It has climbed to 4.49 in 2017. There are mediocre arms everywhere.
“I’m not going to back down,” Lively said. “I’m going to keep pitching my game, stay aggressive, and keep battling like the rest of those guys.”
The margin is thinner for someone like Lively, who without deception or location, is just another line in a September box score between two rebuilding teams searching for slivers of hope before they endure a long winter without baseball.