Well, that was ugly. So much for the Phillies’ defense being improved. For one night, at least, it was 2018 all over again at Citizens Bank Park. Cesar Hernandez, Sean Rodriguez and even Andrew McCutchen, whose play in left field has been superb, made costly defensive gaffes in a 5-2 loss to the Brewers.

At least the Phillies won’t have to wait long to put it behind them. First pitch for the finale with the Brew Crew is set for 1:05 p.m., and the Phillies will need a win to avoid dropping their first series since losing two out of three to the Mets on April 22-24 in New York.

You’re signed up to get this newsletter in your inbox every weekday during the Phillies season. If you like what you’re reading, tell your friends it’s free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber. Thank you for reading.

— Scott Lauber (extrainnings@philly.com)

Teams are shifting against Bryce Harper more than ever this season.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Teams are shifting against Bryce Harper more than ever this season.

Defensive shifts have contributed to Bryce Harper’s long slump

This isn’t saying much because, for the second game in a row, Brewers pitchers pressed the mute button on the Phillies’ offense. But the most meaningful at-bat in Wednesday night’s loss came in the third inning when Bryce Harper lined a two-out double.

Harper’s hit didn’t drive in a run (Jake Arrieta was on base) nor did it kickstart a rally. It was notable, though, because of where it went: left field.

Plenty of comparisons have been made between Harper’s present slump and his first-half struggles with the Nationals last season. It’s worth looking, then, at how he was able to snap out of it after the all-star break last year. And while there were many reasons behind his turnaround, chief among them was his ability to better use the entire field.

According to Statcast, 40.3 percent of Harper’s batted balls were pulled to right field last season while 27.2 percent were hit the other way to left field. This season, Harper has pulled the ball 50 percent of the time and gone the other way only 17.8 percent. So, yes, a double to left field seemed significant.

But there’s another factor at play here. Perhaps realizing that Harper has been increasingly pull-happy, teams are deploying a defensive shift against him more frequently, putting at least one extra defender on the right side of the field.

Last season, also according to Statcast, Harper faced the shift in 51.5 percent of his plate appearances and posted a .350 weighted on-base average. This year, he has seen the shift in 67.8 percent of his plate appearances and posted only a .298 wOBA. In other words, the shift is working. Those balls that he hits to the right side are being gobbled up for outs.

The best way to beat the shift: Hit the ball the opposite way. It’s easier said than done, of course, but Harper has done it before, which was why a two-out double to left field seemed to be such a promising sign for him.

The rundown

One year after they were far and away the worst defensive team in the majors, the Phillies’ defense has been better so far this season. That was not the case last night.

Scott Kingery is scheduled to continue his injury rehab assignment this weekend at double-A Reading. But he could be activated at some point next week.

(Also, within this story, Matt Breen notes that Bruce Willis threw the ceremonial first pitch. What Matt left out is that he has never seen “Die Hard.” Hard to believe, Harry!)

Until this week, the Phillies’ rotation had been on a nice, little roll. Is it sustainable? That’s difficult to say given how much Phillies starters have been pitching to contact this season.

Here’s something I have wondered for a while: With so many teams investing so much time and money in analytics and technology, what are some practical illustrations of how all of that data gets put to use? So, I asked around, and two examples kept coming up: Maikel Franco’s strong April and Zach Eflin’s recent success.

Important dates

Today: Battle of the Zachs -- Eflin vs. Davies -- in finale vs. Brewers, 1:05 p.m.

Tomorrow: Cole Irvin starts the series-opener vs. Rockies, 7:05 p.m.

Saturday: Aaron Nola looks to get back on track, 4:05 p.m.

Sunday: Jerad Eickhoff vs. Kyle Freeland in finale vs. Rockies, 1:05 p.m.

Monday: Phillies open a four-game set vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field, 8:05 p.m.

Zach Eflin, right, and backup catcher Andrew Knapp have been an effective combination for the Phillies over the last three turns through the starting rotation.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Zach Eflin, right, and backup catcher Andrew Knapp have been an effective combination for the Phillies over the last three turns through the starting rotation.

Stat of the day

Quick turnaround for the matinee series finale, so let’s give you a few Zach Eflin stats to get you prepared for the game:

Eflin is riding a brilliant three-start stretch in which he has allowed two runs on 15 hits and two walks in 25 innings for a 0.72 ERA. Oh, but it gets even better. He has thrown two complete games during the stretch. He’s the only pitcher in the majors with two complete games and only the fourth pitcher since 2000 with more than one complete game before the end of May. The others: Robert Person (2001), Kevin Millwood (2003) and Roy Halladay (2010, 2011).

From the mailbag

Send questions by email or on Twitter @ScottLauber.

Question: Do you think Bryce Harper would benefit by switching with Rhys [Hoskins]?

--Arthur B., via email

Answer: Hi, Arthur. Thanks for the question. By “switching” I assume that you mean spots in the lineup, as in Hoskins bumping up to the No. 3 spot and Harper dropping down to clean-up. My opinion is that it wouldn’t matter, but who cares what I think? Kapler doesn’t seem to believe it would benefit Harper either.

Ordinarily, you’re correct in thinking that a slumping hitter might be helped by batting lower in the lineup. But Harper is unusual in that, even when he isn’t getting many hits, he still sees a lot of pitches, draws walks and reaches base at a decent clip. When he struggled through the first half of last season, the Nationals moved him around the lineup, even putting him in the leadoff spot for a spell. But he never started a game lower than the No. 5 spot, and that was for only a couple of games.

If anything, I think the Phillies would move Harper up, not down. But Jean Segura has done well from the No. 2 spot, and Andrew McCutchen and Cesar Hernandez are better suited as leadoff hitters. My sense is that Harper will stay right where he is, slump or no slump.