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.