Phillies' search for a lefty starter: 159 games and counting

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Phillies reliever Adam Morgan is the last lefthanded starter to take the bump for the Phillies — 159 games ago.

ATLANTA — Adam Morgan, the last lefthander to start a game for the Phillies, leaned back in his chair Saturday afternoon and considered the scarce company he keeps. Morgan has resurrected his career as a lefty reliever, throwing 96 mph with a biting slider. The bullpen is where he belongs. Still, it is strange that no lefty has started a Phillies game since he did it Sept. 28, 2016.

“Did we have any in spring training?” Morgan asked.

No. The Phillies have played 159 straight games without one started by a lefthander. They will finish the season with righties, pushing the streak to 166 games. It is the first time since 1918 they will play a season without a lefthanded starter.

The streak is something of a quirk for a club with a legend nicknamed “Lefty.” The Phillies crave better starters no matter what hand they use. But the lack of lefties is  discussed within the organization.

“Most of the best hitters in baseball, usually, are lefthanded,” Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure said. “But it’s not something myself or the whole organization has not talked about. We’ve all talked about it. It just so happens — it’s very odd — that most of our prospects are righthanded. But that’ll change.”

Both McClure and Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said that, in an ideal world, the rotation would include two lefties. There are multiple reasons for that: The bullpen, Mackanin said, is easier to handle with a lefty or two in the rotation. When the rotation is filled with righties, opposing teams stack their lineups with lefties, and it forces the manager to rely more heavily  upon his one or two lefties in the bullpen.

The biggest benefit would be a different look that could create better matchups. Entering Saturday, lefthanded hitters had faced Phillies righthanded pitchers in 2,872 plate appearances. That was the most in baseball by a sizable margin — 169 plate appearances. Those lefty hitters had posted an .810 OPS against Phillies righties, the third-highest mark in baseball.

“The way the teams stack their lineups,” Morgan said, “they don’t have to worry about a lefty.”

It would be a surprise if the Phillies played the entire 2018 season without a lefthanded starter. They could pursue a veteran one in a trade this winter, or through free agency — although the options there are ordinary. Jaime Garcia, Jason Vargas, CC Sabathia, Francisco Liriano, and Wade Miley will be available.

The lefty shortage extended to triple-A Lehigh Valley, where three lefties made starts. Two — Cesar Ramos and Joey DeNato — were relievers. The other, Brandon Leibrandt, posted a 3.94 ERA in 12 starts. A better crop could begin the 2018 season at double-A Reading. JoJo Romero has generated buzz among scouts from other organizations who follow the Phillies. Cole Irvin and Ranger Suarez are two others with promise; Suarez is expected to be added to the 40-man roster this winter. Elniery Garcia’s stock fell after a suspension for use of performance-enhancing drugs, but he remains on the 40-man roster.

“It’s something we’ve all talked about at length,” McClure said. “And there’s some guys out there they may end up being interested in. I don’t know.”

The current streak is not unprecedented in baseball. Milwaukee went 474 games from 2013 to 2016 without using a lefthanded starter. The all-time record is believed to be the 681 games that the Los Angeles Dodgers went without a lefty starter from 1992 to 1997.

The Phillies went 145 straight games from 1917 to 1919 without starting a lefthanded pitcher. Gene Packard broke the streak on May 20, 1919 with a complete-game shutout over St. Louis. A few months later, Packard left the Phillies to pitch for a steel mill team in Massillon, Ohio.

That, at least, will not happen to the next lefty the Phillies find for their rotation.