Phillies' starting pitching heating up just as offense disappears in loss to Pirates

Phillies' starting pitching heating up just as offense disappears in loss to Pirates

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PITTSBURGH — For most of the season, the Phillies have looked better offensively than they did a year ago but the pitching has been terrible.

And now, with Aaron Nola back from the DL and Jeremy Hellickson and Jerad Eickhoff recapturing their consistency over the last week to help an overworked bullpen … the Phillies aren't hitting.

The Phils mustered just three hits in a 1-0 loss to the Pirates Sunday at PNC Park (see Instant Replay). They hadn't been shut out since the second game of the season. 

They went 2-7 on their road trip to Washington, Texas and Pittsburgh, they've lost 17 of their last 21 games and seven series in a row. It's the first time they've dropped seven consecutive series since 2006.

It feels right now like any positive strides made in 2016 have been erased. After improving from 63 wins in 2015 to 71 in 2016, the Phillies were expected by many to inch closer to .500 this season. Instead, they're on a 59-103 pace with the Memorial Day checkpoint approaching.

"Well, having won only two games on this road trip, the only thing I'd really like to talk about is Nola," manager Pete Mackanin said in a somber visiting clubhouse. "What a breath of fresh air. He looked like his old self today. That's the thing I take out of this game that I'm real happy about. The only run that scored was on a hit batsman. He looked like his old self and I'm real happy about that. That's about all I'm happy about today.

"We haven't been swinging the bats well the whole trip, to be honest with you. We need to swing the bats better and we need to pitch better. Today was a good start to go home with a nice seven-inning performance. [Nola] could have gone out there in the eighth if we had a lead. That was great to see. We're just not swinging the bats well."

Nola's outing was the clear silver lining to another series loss. He was crisp and efficient over seven innings in his first start since April 20, allowing just four singles and a run while striking out five. He worked ahead of 18 of the 27 hitters he faced and just looked like the pre-injury version of himself (see breakdown of Nola's return).

His command was sharp to both sides of the plate, his curveball froze hitters and his velocity reached as high as 95.5 mph, an intriguing trend that has begun only this season. Nola threw just two pitches in all of 2016 at 94 mph or faster; he's thrown 13 this season.

"Going seven innings was definitely good to do, I haven't done that in a while," said Nola, who last went seven innings on May 20, 2016. "I got early outs a few times and that definitely helped me but I was just focused on commanding my fastball to both sides of the plate, especially down and away. 

"I was confident. My body felt good, back felt good. I felt like I didn't skip a beat. Those rehab starts really helped me a lot, especially my last one."

The Phillies obviously need some offensive help. It's highly unlikely to come in the form of a trade because they won't be contending in 2017. It could come in the form of a call-up from the minor leagues, but the Phils' best offensive prospect right now is Rhys Hoskins, who plays the same position as Tommy Joseph, one of their hottest hitters.

For a few weeks, Aaron Altherr's torrid streak masked the inefficiency of the rest of the offense. Yes, Maikel Franco and Odubel Herrera picked up two of the Phils' three hits Sunday, but both have drastically underperformed through the season's first two months. And those two veteran bats the Phillies brought in to lengthen the lineup? Howie Kendrick has missed over a month with an oblique strain, and Michael Saunders has provided very little, saving his best hits for games that have already been decided.

You can't even say some home cooking will cure the Phillies' woes right now because the next four games are against the Colorado Rockies, who have the best record in the National League and are 14-7 on the road.

The Phils' best hope right now, the one to cling to, is that the starting staff can get into a groove and be the catalyst for some improved baseball. Starting pitching was, after all, supposed to be the strength of this team.

"That's the start of the climb out of the hole we've dug ourselves into," Mackanin said. "We've just got to keep digging. With Hellickson's performance and Nola's performance today, I think we can count on Eickhoff to be the guy he was last year and (Zach) Eflin I think we can count on. Those guys, in particular, are at least going to keep us on the right track where we're in more games. Obviously, we were in another game today. We just fall short."

The scary part is they're falling short just as often as they did in 2015, the 99-loss season.

Instant Replay: Pirates 1, Phillies 0

Instant Replay: Pirates 1, Phillies 0

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PITTSBURGH — Aaron Nola pitched seven excellent innings for the Phillies in his return from the DL Sunday, but it didn't matter as the Phils' bats went completely silent in a 1-0 loss to the Pirates.

It's the first time they've been shut out since the second game of the season in Cincinnati.

The result is the Phils' seventh series loss in a row. They haven't won a series since April 26-27 against the Marlins, who are one of just two teams in baseball with a worse record than the 15-26 Phillies.

Starting pitching report
Nola was sharp and efficient all afternoon, reaching as high as 95.5 mph on the radar gun and working ahead of two of every three hitters. 

Look here for more on his performance (see breakdown of Nola's return).

Pirates right-hander Chad Kuhl, a native of Middletown, Delaware, allowed just one hit over five shutout innings with two walks and five strikeouts. The lone hit he allowed was a Maikel Franco double.

Kuhl, who entered with a 6.69 ERA, was pinch-hit for with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. It was the Pirates' first opportunity with a runner in scoring position and manager Clint Hurdle decided to go with Jose Osuna, who lined out to center.

Lefties had hit .319 with a 1.176 OPS off Kuhl entering Sunday but the Phillies' lefty-heavy lineup did nothing against him, going 0 for 10 with a walk.

At the plate
There was practically no offense to speak of for the Phils. Their only chances with runners in scoring position came in the fifth and eighth innings. 

In the fifth, Andrew Knapp and Nola struck out looking with men on first and second.

In the eighth, Aaron Altherr struck out on a 98 mph from dominant lefty reliever Felipe Rivero to end a two-on, two-out threat.

Up next
The Phillies are home all week after going 2-7 on their nine-game road trip through Washington, Texas and Pittsburgh. 

They open a four-game series against the Colorado Rockies tomorrow night at 7:05. 

At 27-17, the Rockies have the best record in the National League, and unlike most years they've been better on the road (14-7) than at Coors Field (13-10).

Monday, 7:05 p.m. — Jerad Eickhoff (0-4, 4.53) vs. TBA

Tuesday, 7:05 p.m. — Zach Eflin (0-1, 4.25) vs. German Marquez (2-2, 4.34)

Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. — Jeremy Hellickson (5-1, 3.44) vs. Tyler Chatwood (3-6, 5.09)

Thursday, 1:05 p.m. — Vince Velasquez (2-4, 5.98) vs. Tyler Anderson (3-4, 6.00)

Aaron Nola sharp over 7 innings for Phillies in return from DL

Aaron Nola sharp over 7 innings for Phillies in return from DL

PITTSBURGH — Pitching in the majors for the first time since April 20, Aaron Nola was sharp Sunday in his return from the disabled list.

Nola allowed just one run over seven innings and it came on a bases-loaded hit by pitch of David Freese. On the very next pitch, he got John Jaso to ground into a 4-6-3 double play to end the threat. 

Nola became the first Phillies starting pitcher to complete seven innings since Vince Velasquez on May 6, and it was his first time going that deep into a game since May 20, 2016.

He allowed just four singles, walked two (one intentional) and struck out five.

The Phillies provided Nola no run support but the 1-0 loss Sunday to the Pirates was secondary to how he looked in his first start back from the DL stint that caused him to miss a month.

His velocity, which was up in April before he went on the DL with a lower back strain, reached as high as 95.5 mph and averaged 92.3. While velocity readings have been a bit up league-wide this season, Nola's fastball has indeed had some more noticeable oomph. 

He's thrown 13 pitches this season at 94 mph or faster. He had only two last season.

Nola was efficient all afternoon. He needed just 89 pitches over his seven innings and threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 27 batters.

It was a great sign for the Phillies, who badly need their starting rotation to get into a rhythm. With the staff now healthy, Pete Mackanin hopes they get into a groove.

"I'm remaining optimistic because I think we're better than our record," Mackanin said Saturday. "Now that we've got our starters every fifth day and we don't have these days off and the rain and the injuries to starters, I think we can hopefully get into a rhythm with the starters, which will help the bullpen."