Cliff Lee ponders future after tough-luck loss

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Cliff Lee ponders future after tough-luck loss

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ATLANTA -- The way Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitched in the second half of the season, it’s a shame the Phillies aren’t going to the playoffs. The two lefties could have formed a dangerous tandem in the month of October.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing the Phillies’ season will end on Sunday. This team’s offense would probably just have broken your heart in October anyway.

Two months before Thanksgiving, Lee had the carving knife out Friday night. He pitched eight spectacular innings against the Atlanta Braves, walked none, struck out 13 -- and still lost!

Braves third baseman Chris Johnson gave his team a 1-0 win when he stroked a down-and-in, 0-2 slider into the left-field seats to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning (see Instant Replay).

“It basically came down to one pitch,” Lee said. “I felt like I made a good pitch. I was trying to bury it down and in and it was down and in. I think it was a ball. He put a good swing on it and hit a home run and that’s the game.

“It’s frustrating, but you’ve got to give credit to (Atlanta starter) Kris Medlen. He shut us down for eight innings and (closer) Craig Kimbrel came in at the end. It was a well-pitched game on both sides. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Medlen held the Phillies to two hits over eight innings.

“When a guy pitches like that, you want to back him with a little offense,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said of Lee. “The conversations in the dugout every inning were, ‘Let’s go. The guy is pitching his tail off.’”

Lee finished his season 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA. His September was spectacular: In five starts, he allowed eight earned runs in 39 innings (1.85 ERA). He walked one -- one -- and struck out 54. That makes him the first pitcher in the history of the game to have a month with 50 strikeouts and one or few walks.

Not too shabby.

In 12 starts after the All-Star break, Lee had a 2.89 ERA. Hamels had a 2.97 in 13 starts after the break.

“I gave the team a chance to win just about every time I took the mound,” Lee said. “As a starting pitcher, I feel pretty good about that.”

Giving the team a chance to win doesn’t always equal a win, especially with this Phillies’ offense.

The Phils have lost eight of their last nine games. They have scored just 19 runs in those nine games. They have not homered in nine straight games, their longest home-run drought since 1989.

Lee, a frequent victim of poor run support, hopes the Phillies add some offense in the offseason.

“No doubt,” he said. “I think we all would. It’s been a big part of our struggles, lack of scoring runs. But we’ve also had games where we scored a bunch of runs and screwed it up on the mound. It takes a total package. You have to hit, pitch, play defense and have a good bullpen.”

Three seasons into his five-year contract with the Phillies, Lee has made the playoffs only once, in 2011. He finished in the top 10 in ERA in the league last year and will do so again this year. That’s a lot of personal success and no postseason to show for it. Lee turned 35 in August. Does he feel like he’s using up a lot of good bullets as his clock ticks?

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m getting up there in age. I’m 35 years old now and when this contract’s over I plan on going home, so I’m running out of opportunities. All I can control is what I can control, and I’m going to do everything I can to help us win. That’s all I know how to do.”

Don’t fret, Lee fans. The lefty still has two guaranteed years left on his contract (at $25 million per season) and a vesting option for 2016. So he could be around for three more years -- and maybe more because he did leave himself wiggle room in his comments.

But he left no doubt that he wants to get back to the postseason while he’s still a difference-maker.

“Right now, I don’t [see myself pitching beyond this contract],” Lee said. “There are a lot of things that can happen between now and then, but I just know that my kids are 12 and 10 and I’ve basically missed the first half of their lives.

“I’m financially able to shut it down, so … that’s how I feel right now. But when the time comes I might look at it differently.

“I also want to finish being good, not struggling and fumbling through at the end. I want to finish strong and take it to the house. Next year, I want to win a World Series, then another one, then another one and take it to the house. That’s what I’m wanting to do.”

Tonight's lineup: WIth only RHP left, could Ryan Howard start every game?

Tonight's lineup: WIth only RHP left, could Ryan Howard start every game?

If healthy, Ryan Howard is expected to start all three games in the Phillies' final series of the season Sept. 2-4 at home against the Mets.

He might also start the entire Braves series.

The Phillies' final six games are all against right-handed starting pitchers: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz and Josh Collmenter in Atlanta; Robert Gsellman, Bartolo Colon and Noah Syndergaard with the Mets. That could mean six starts for Howard before his time with the Phillies expires.

Howard's batting average has been below .200 for practically the entire season, but he's been much better since the All-Star break, hitting .259/.325/.598 with 11 homers, five doubles and 25 RBIs in 123 plate appearances (see game notes). He went 0 for 6 in his last two starts but homered in each of his two previous starts to reach 23 for the third year in a row.

Here's the Phillies' full lineup Tuesday against Teheran:

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Roman Quinn, LF
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Ryan Howard, 1B
6. Cameron Rupp, C
7. Freddy Galvis, SS
8. Aaron Altherr, RF
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

Matt Kemp is out of the Braves' lineup.

1. Ender Inciarte, CF
2. Adonis Garcia, 3B
3. Freddie Freeman, 1B
4. Nick Markakis, RF
5. Tyler Flowers, C
6. Jace Peterson, 2B
7. Dansby Swanson, SS
8. Mallex Smith, LF
9. Julio Teheran, P

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Phillies-Braves 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff approaches 200-inning mark

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Jerad Eickhoff approaches 200-inning mark

Phillies (70-86) at Braves (63-92)
7:10 p.m. on CSN

After losing by three possessions on Sunday and getting an off day Monday to think about it, the Phillies are back in action Tuesday night to begin their final road series of 2016.

Let's take a look:

1. The finish line nears
Forty-nine down, two to go. The Phillies have just two series left this season, a three-gamer in Atlanta and then a set with the Mets at home to close it out. 

The Phils have a series record of 18-25-6. They have just six series wins in 21 tries since the All-Star break (6-12-3). 

The Phillies and Braves have played seven times in the second half and the Phils are 2-5 — they split a four-game series July 28-31 in Atlanta and were swept at home Sept. 2-4.

With 70 wins, the Phillies have already beaten their over-under by four victories. If they manage to split these final six games, they'll finish 10 games better than they did in 2015.

The Braves, meanwhile, will avoid 100 losses. That didn't look possible when they were 33-66 and on pace for 109 losses. But Atlanta has been much better the last six weeks, especially offensively.

2. Freeman's monstrous year
Whether it was the addition of Matt Kemp or just regression to his true talent level, Freddie Freeman has been a force of nature this summer.

Freeman started slowly. Through June 12, he was hitting .242 with a .750 OPS in 61 games. Since then? He's hit .347/.445/.673 with 33 doubles, five triples, 23 homers and 69 RBIs in 91 games. The Braves are just three games under .500 over that span at 44-47.

It's pretty amazing that Freeman has had an MVP-caliber season in a lineup that offers so little protection. This has been the best year of his seven-year career. In 669 plate appearances, he's hit .305/.402/.570 with 43 doubles, six triples, 32 homers and 87 RBIs. He's also walked 86 times. 

Freeman's best work this year has come against the Phillies. In 16 games, he's gone 22 for 60 (.367) with a .449 OBP, five doubles, five homers and 10 RBIs.

3. The push toward 200
Jerad Eickhoff makes his 32nd start of the season tonight and will likely have one more on the final day. He enters tonight's game with 187⅓ innings pitched, 12⅔ shy of the 200-inning benchmark every pitcher seeks.

Eickhoff said early in the summer that 200 innings would be meaningful to him and acknowledged it just sounds different than 195. It's taken health, stamina and consistency for Eickhoff to get to this point at age 26 in his first full big-league season.

Eickhoff (11-14, 3.75 ERA) has made six consecutive quality starts. He's steadied the Phillies' rotation for four months now. Since May 22, Eickhoff is 10-8 with a 3.52 ERA, but if you remove the one dreadful outing at hitter-friendly Coors Field, his ERA over that span is 3.13. He very well could be the opening day starter in 2017.

Eickhoff has faced the Braves five times in his career and gone 2-1 with a 1.45 ERA and 1.00 WHIP. 

Freeman is 5 for 14 against him with a double and a homer, but all other active Braves have hit a combined .209 with no extra-base hits in more than 75 plate appearances.

Eickhoff won't have to deal with Kemp, who has been hot lately but is out of Tuesday's lineup.

4. Last look at Teheran
The Phillies take on talented Braves right-hander Julio Teheran for the third time this season and 15th time in his six-year career.

Could it be their last time seeing him in an Atlanta uniform? That's always a possibility for the rebuilding Braves with Teheran, who has long been an intriguing trade candidate. A 25-year-old with a 3.37 career ERA and one of the more team-friendly contracts in baseball, Teheran figures to have immense trade value this offseason. He's due $31 million over the next three seasons in a sport where pitchers half as talented now earn similar average annual salaries.

If Teheran is eventually dealt for a package of prospects, the Phillies won't be sad to see him go. He's 7-4 with a 2.31 ERA and has allowed just five home runs to them in 89⅔ career innings. His starts against the Phillies the last three years have been even better: 6-2, 1.39 ERA, 56 strikeouts, 13 walks, one homer allowed in 71 innings.

His last time out, Teheran allowed just one run over seven innings to the Mets but struck out only one batter. He hasn't missed many bats lately, generating just three swings-and-misses in his last start and six two outings before that.

Teheran has five pitches but mostly uses a four-seam fastball/slider combination. When he last faced the Phillies on Sept. 4, 90 of his 119 pitches were four-seamers or sliders.

Current Phillies have hit .219 collectively against Teheran in 169 at-bats. Freddy Galvis has seen him the best, going 7 for 18 (all singles) with three walks. Ryan Howard has two doubles and two solo homers off Teheran in 26 ABs.

5. This and that
• File this one under stats nobody would have predicted: The Braves have the highest on-base percentage in the majors since the All-Star break at .346. The Phillies are fifth-worst at .306.

• In 50 games with Atlanta, Kemp has hit .287/.341/.508 with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 35 RBIs. He had 16 walks in 100 games with the Padres and has 18 in half as many games with the Braves. His poor defense has still made him a net negative player this season (if you believe in WAR), but the Braves are 26-24 since acquiring him.

• If the season ended today, the Phillies would have the ninth pick in next June's draft. Based on the records of the teams around them, they are a near lock to pick either 8th, 9th or 10th.

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