Phillies drop a clunker in precursor to Aaron Nola vs. Clayton Kershaw

LOS ANGELES — Gabe Kapler had friends from back home in Southern California text him earlier this week and alert him that they had tickets to see his Phillies play Thursday afternoon at Dodger Stadium.

“I’m like ‘Awesome. You get to see Nola vs. Kershaw.’ That’s a pretty good matchup,” Kapler said. “That’s kind of cool as a baseball fan.”

It was a good thing that Kapler’s buddies weren’t holding tickets to Wednesday night’s 8-2 drubbing by the Dodgers. Thursday’s series finale is lining up to be a clash of two of the National League’s premier pitchers as Aaron Nola and Clayton Kershaw face off. But Wednesday night was just a clunker.

Zach Eflin gave up five runs in four innings and the Phillies did not score a run until they trailed by seven. Victor Arano allowed two runs and Mitch Walding, who made his major-league debut after flying into L.A. earlier in the day, struck out four times. The Phillies were lifeless. To salvage a split of the four-game series, they will need Nola to outduel Kershaw, who is returning from the disabled list.

“As a baseball fan, I’m very excited about that match-up,” Kapler said. “As a Phillie, very excited about facing the best.”

Perhaps the Phillies were due for a dud like the one Eflin threw, as he allowed seven hits, including a pair of homers. Their rotation entered the night with a 1.98 ERA over the last 21 games, the lowest mark in baseball over that stretch. The Phillies starters allowed two runs or fewer in all but three of those games. A night like Wednesday was coming.

Eflin has a 7.53 ERA over his last three starts and is beginning to show some cracks after returning to the majors this season with such promise. The righthander allowed just one run in his first 12 2/3 innings since being promoted from triple A. He changed his attitude on the mound, pitching with more aggression at the urging of his coaches, and he altered where he stands on the pitching rubber. The fixes seemed to work. But now that promise is being tested.

“I threw some good pitches, I threw some bad pitches. They tool advantage of my bad pitches and they hit some good pitches,” Eflin said. “So it’s just one of those days where I’m not going to look back and say I did bad or I did horrible. I had really good stuff today. It’s just one of those days where I got hit around.”

Cole Irvin, a 24-year-old lefthander, came one out shy of a shutout on Wednesday night as he pitched 2,680 miles away for triple-A Lehigh Valley. Irvin is pushing his way to the majors and could soon be promoted. Eflin’s next start in Chicago could determine his standing in the rotation.

“We’re constantly evaluating our players,” Kapler said. “We’re constantly making determinations on what happens next. That’s something, we’re not there yet. Next couple of days we’ll be thinking about that.”

Nick Williams, who will receive regular playing time as Rhys Hoskins heals from a fractured jaw, homered in the seventh inning. It was Williams’ fifth homer in his last 15 games. Jorge Alfaro doubled later in the inning but that was about all the Phillies could do. Dodgers righthander Ross Stripling struck out nine and allowed just one run in seven innings.

“I think it might help just to have regular at-bats but I don’t feel like I’m doing horrible,” Williams said. “I feel like I’m in contributing in some way to the team so I’ve stayed positive through it, through the little struggles here and there.”

The Phillies will be in third place on Thursday when Nola takes the mound. It was just five days earlier that they celebrated their move into first. But that place in the standings lasted less than 24 hours. No, Nola cannot get them back there, but he can send them to San Francisco — a series against a beatable team — with some confidence. And a ticket for Thursday is a bit hotter than the one punched on Wednesday.