Phillies (14-24) at Pirates (18-23)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App
Losers of 15 of their last 18 games, the Phillies head to Pittsburgh for a winnable three-game set vs. the unremarkable Pirates.
Jeremy Hellickson hopes to get the Phillies, and himself, back on track vs. 25-year old Trevor Williams, making his fourth career start.
Here are five things to watch for tonight’s game:
1. Righting the ship
The Phillies send Hellickson to the mound to stop the bleeding, for himself and the team. Hellickson looked like a legitimate Cy Young candidate in his five March?April starts, going 4-0 with a 1.80 ERA, allowing just six earned runs.
As good as Hellickson was in April, he has been equally bad in May. In three May starts, the righty hasn’t gone more than five innings, while racking up a 7.90 ERA for the month. The Phillies’ de facto ace allowed as many runs on May 2 vs. the Cubs as he did in five March/April starts.
When Hellickson was on fire in the opening month of the season, he wasn’t striking out many batters — just 11 in five games. What made Hellickson so successful was his ability to induce weak contact and let the defense take care of the rest. That’s not a very sustainable attack and we've seen the proof in May. Hellickson is getting bruised by batters this month. Hitters have a .234 average off Hellickson on groundballs, but the righty is giving up more hard-hit line drives recently. Batters are hitting .522 on line drives off Hellickson, leading to a drastic increase in home runs from April — two in five starts — to May — seven in three starts.
To be fair, Hellickson has faced probably the two best lineups in baseball in his last three starts — at the Cubs and twice vs. the Nationals. That will change tonight vs. the Pirates, who have scored the fourth-fewest runs in all of baseball.
With the bullpen's recent struggles (see: the Rangers series), the Phillies need Hellickson to revert to his April form tonight. With a depleted bullpen, the Phillies recalled Adam Morgan from Triple A Friday to replace Nick Pivetta on the 25-man roster. Morgan will likely be sent down when Aaron Nola returns after missing a month with a lower back strain Sunday.
2. Bad teams going in different directions
The Phillies have lost six straight series en route to a 3-15 record in their last 18. That may change this weekend in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are in a familiar position for Phillies fans — caught somewhere in the vast wasteland of not-so-distant contention in recent years, and a team that needs to retool in the coming seasons.
The Pirates’ season received a death blow in mid-April when outfielder Starling Marte — arguably the Pirates’ best player — was dealt an 80-game suspension for PED use.
The Pirates don’t score many runs, but their bright spot has been pitching. Pirates’ pitching ranks 12th in earned runs, fourth in walks allowed and 10th in home runs allowed. Those aren’t great numbers, but compare them to the Phillies’ numbers, and things begin to look a bit different. Phils’ pitching ranks 29th in ERA and batting average against and 30th in home runs. Yikes.
3. McCutchen on the decline
If you haven’t paid attention to the Pirates in a while — and honestly, why would you? — you might still think of Andrew McCutchen as the Pirates’ perennial MVP-candidate centerfielder. Now 30 years old, McCutchen is on the downside of his career. Since his monster 2012 season (.327, 31 home runs, 96 RBIs), McCutchen’s numbers have dropped in every season since, with a particular dropoff over the past two seasons. Now in right field, the former All-Star is hitting just .220, with almost as many strikeouts (29) as hits (33). Sadly, like his pop, even the dreadlocks are gone.
4. Don't forget Tommy Joseph
While Aaron Altherr has gotten much of the attention for his outstanding play in May, Tommy Joseph has matched him every step of the way. Joseph is hitting .383 in May — 30 percentage points higher than Altherr —with five homers, 11 RBIs and seven walks this month. After a disastrous opening month of the season, Joseph has put to rest any talk of the Phillies’ calling up Rhys Hoskins from the minors, and deservedly so.
5. This and that
• Friday will be just Hellickson's second-career start at PNC Park. Hellickson went 5 1/3 innings while giving up one run for the Diamondbacks in 2015.
• The Phillies have never faced Williams, who has a 7.88 ERA in two starts this season.
• The Pirates are 12-16 since Marte's suspension.