Phillies on pace for 111 losses after bizarre late-game bullpen meltdown

Phillies on pace for 111 losses after bizarre late-game bullpen meltdown

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In the big picture — and that's what has really mattered right from the beginning of this season — something quite positive happened for the Phillies on Wednesday night: A young, promising pitcher took a nice step forward and for the second straight start offered hope that he might just be a reliable piece of the rotation when this rebuilding club is ready to be relevant again.

But in the narrow view, it was easy to look right past Nick Pivetta's six innings of three-run, 10-strikeout ball. That's how bad the losing has been. Every night offers a gaper delay on the highway to 100 losses.

Did we say 100?

How about 111? That's the Phillies' current pace after an ugly 7-6 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals (see Instant Replay) — and 111 losses would match a franchise high set in 1941 when Doc Prothro's club went 43-111.

It's bad, folks.

But you already knew that.

This one was especially unsightly for how the Phillies lost it. They blew a five-run lead under the weight of a barrage of home runs — two against the bullpen in the eighth and ninth innings — had the potential winning run cut down at the plate by 20 feet in the bottom of the ninth then lost it in the 10th after a troubling meltdown by reliever Edubray Ramos.

You almost had to see it to believe it. And if you didn't see it, don't bother looking for a replay. It will only hurt your eyes.

"We let that five-run lead get away from us," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Real disappointing night. Pivetta did a really good job for us, gave us six good innings. And we had 16 hits; you have to win a game when you get 16 hits. We couldn't push any more runs across until that 10th inning. Very disappointing."

Pivetta — 19 strikeouts in his last two starts — took a 5-0 lead to the mound in the fifth and was tagged for a home run on a 3-2 fastball in that inning. No problem. He issued a two-out walk in the sixth then served up a first-pitch, two-run homer to Jedd Gyorko. Little problem, but not fatal.

Things started to turn bad in the eighth when reliever Joaquin Benoit served up a first-pitch homer to Jose Martinez to make it a one-run game and they got worse when Hector Neris blew his second save in three games when he gave up a game-tying homer to Tommy Pham (his second of the game) on a 1-1 fastball in the ninth.

In the 10th, Ramos gave up a leadoff double to Martinez. The reliever then balked Martinez to third and gifted him home plate on an errant pickoff throw to first base. (It sailed way over Tommy Joseph's head.) The Cards ended up scoring two runs in the frame. The second one came in handy when the Phils pushed across one in the bottom of the inning.

Ramos looks like a pitcher who needs to go to the minors to clear his head. In his last three outings, he has faced eight batters and allowed three hits, three walks and seven runs. He has also committed a costly balk and a costly error, signs that's he becoming a little overwhelmed.

"I don't know what to tell you," Mackanin said. "It looks like he's mixed up or something. He's not the same guy."

Ramos declined to speak with reporters after the game.

But Odubel Herrera and Pat Neshek did agree to chat.

Neshek, the Phillies' best reliever, was conspicuously absent from a close game. He threw 28 pitches Sunday, had a day off Monday and threw 11 on Tuesday. He was not available. What was curious was that Mackanin said Neshek had told him he was sore. Neshek said he never said such a thing, that he showed up to the ballpark and was told he was getting a day off, which he actually thought was a good idea. But sore? Not so, he said.

As for Herrera, he drew attention for running through third base coach Juan Samuel's stop sign in the bottom of the ninth inning and getting nailed at the plate for the final out. Samuel said it was the first time a player had ever run through one of his stop signs. In this case, Herrera almost ran him over.

"It's just bad timing for it," Samuel said.

There was some question as to whether Samuel's stop sign went up too late, but Herrera dismissed that. He said he was simply running with his head down.

"I was playing aggressive," he said. "I wanted to win the game. So when I was rounding third, I put my head down. I kept going to home plate. I saw [the stop sign]. But I saw it late. I put my head down. That's my mistake."

Making a mistake didn't make Herrera unique Wednesday night.

"The mistakes we're making are giving the other team too many pitches to hit," Mackanin said. "Those are our mistakes. Especially late in the game."

A look at Phillies' trade candidates after another Jeremy Hellickson clunker

A look at Phillies' trade candidates after another Jeremy Hellickson clunker

Many frustrations have surrounded the Phillies' season and one toward the top of the list is the lack of production from their perceived trade candidates.

GM Matt Klentak brought in a handful of veterans in the offseason with the intention of slightly improving the big-league club while also giving himself a chance to net a few lottery-ticket prospects around the trade deadline.

Unfortunately, more has gone wrong for the Phillies' veteran acquisitions than has gone right. Let's go one by one.

RHP Jeremy Hellickson (owed approximately $5.7 million after July 31)
Whatever trade value Hellickson had last summer and earlier this season has vanished. He was rocked again Wednesday as his ERA rose to 4.91 (see Instant Replay).

Since May 1, Hellickson has allowed 12 home runs in nine starts and his opponents have hit .310 with a .993 OPS. Add that to his hefty 2017 price tag and the result is a player who may be tradable but won't net you much.

Another key difference between this year and last is that Hellickson was arguably the top starting pitcher on the trade market last summer. This summer, there are many better options in Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray, Jose Quintana, Jason Vargas and Jaime Garcia, just to name five.

Maybe Hellickson reels off five or six dominant starts before the deadline to reestablish the trade value, but it sure looks like the Phillies swung and missed with him two years in a row.

RHP Pat Neshek (owed ~$2.2 million after July 31)
It's pretty clear that Neshek will be moved. He knows it himself (see story).

He's been the Phillies' best pitcher this season, allowing two runs in 24 innings for a 0.75 ERA. He's allowed 15 hits, walked four and struck out 22.

He also has shown the capability to retire big-time bats. Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Freddie Freeman, Giancarlo Stanton, Nolan Arenado and Yoenis Cespedes are a combined 0 for 12 with four strikeouts this season against Neshek, who's made a career out of keeping powerful righties off-balance.

But as good as Neshek has been, don't expect the Phillies to get a significant prospect in return for him. He's a 36-year-old setup man on an expiring contract.

Looking at last year's trade deadline, the deal involving a player most similar to Neshek was the Brewers' trade of Will Smith. Milwaukee traded Smith to the Giants for catcher Andrew Susac and former Giants first-round pick Phil Bickford, a pitcher with upside who's far from a sure thing. 

Smith was 10 years younger than Neshek last summer but carried a similar track record — 3.22 ERA the previous three seasons as a setup man ... a nice piece and the kind of player who helps a team but doesn't dictate its success. 

Susac, a right-handed hitting catcher with a decent bat, was 26 at the time of the trade and had played in 87 big-league games. He's an Andrew Knapp-type. 

For Neshek, the Phillies will likely either get a bench piece or every team's favorite lottery ticket: a Single A arm with upside.

INF/OF Howie Kendrick (owed ~$3.3 million after July 31)
The trade value of Neshek and Kendrick is similar. Two guys with lengthy track records of being pretty good. Kendrick has had a great first half, hitting .340/.398/.500 with seven steals.

Like Neshek, Kendrick's contract is up after the season. Like Neshek, Kendrick should bring back a modest or slightly above-average return.

Looking at the last few trade deadlines and offseasons, the trade most similar to one involving Kendrick might be when the Phillies dealt Chase Utley to the Dodgers in 2015. At that time, Utley was three years older than Kendrick and hitting just .217, but Los Angeles looked at him as a helpful piece with postseason experience, unparalleled work ethic and strong leadership skills. Those final two pieces mattered greatly to a young Dodgers team.

In exchange for Utley, the Phillies got a 4-A utilityman in Darnell Sweeney and right-handed starting pitching prospect John Richy, who was drafted in the third round the year prior.

The Phillies' return for Kendrick should be better but not much better. One advantage the Phillies have here is that Kendrick plays so many positions — left field, second base, first base, third base. There will be no shortage of teams interested in acquiring him.

RHP Joaquin Benoit (owed ~$2.5 million after July 31)
Benoit just has not been the pitcher the Phillies thought they were getting. From 2010 through 2016, he had a 2.40 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 10.0 strikeouts per nine innings and 2.8 walks.

This season, he has a 4.56 ERA in 25 appearances with a 1.18 WHIP, 8.0 strikeouts per nine and 4.6 walks. His control has been a bit erratic, and though 20 of his 25 appearances have been scoreless, the other five have really hurt.

Benoit was traded last summer by the Mariners to the Blue Jays straight-up for Drew Storen in a change-of-scenery deal involving two struggling relievers. Benoit went on to allow one run in 23 2/3 innings with Toronto.

I do expect the Phillies to move Benoit but unless he has a big turnaround, they might have to eat all of his remaining money just to bring back something of substance.

OF Michael Saunders (owed ~$3 million after July 31)
This has been a very disappointing signing. It's gotten so bad for Saunders that he's lost everyday playing time and has fallen below Daniel Nava in the pecking order of who can help most on a given night.

The Phillies guaranteed the 30-year-old Saunders $9 million and hold a club option for next year at $10.5 million. There's no chance in hell they exercise that option unless he has a second half as good as this first half was bad.

That's assuming he's even on the roster come the second half. Klentak was asked about Saunders on Wednesday and brought up his track record of streakiness, saying he's known to get extremely hot and extremely cold and when he's hot, he can carry a team for a month. 

That seemed like a bit of an exaggeration, but through June 17 last season (right around this time), Saunders was hitting .314 with 17 doubles, 15 homers and a .999 OPS.

The thing is, at this point he'd have to get insanely hot for a month and a half to convince a team to trade for him. Otherwise, he's a fourth outfielder at best on a contender. And the Phillies aren't even playing him every day anymore to give him that opportunity.

Sadly, Saunders is more of a DFA candidate than a trade candidate.

RHP Clay Buchholz
Let us never forget Buchholz's legendary Phillies career: 7 1/3 innings, 19 baserunners, 10 runs, one season-ending injury, $13.5 million. 

The Phillies paid Buchholz more this season than they paid Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Aaron Altherr, Tommy Joseph, Cesar Hernandez, Freddy Galvis, Cameron Rupp, Knapp, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez and Hector Neris combined.

Phillies blow 2 leads in 11-inning loss to Red Sox, fall 20 games under .500

Phillies blow 2 leads in 11-inning loss to Red Sox, fall 20 games under .500

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BOSTON — Three hours before Monday night's game against the Boston Red Sox, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin was asked about the frustration his team was feeling after losing five straight ballgames and falling to 19 games under .500.

"I think everybody's frustrated," he said. "When you have a team that's losing, everybody should be frustrated for one reason or another. I'm staying positive, but it's frustrating to lose. So I hope everybody else is."

Again, that was before the game.

By the time Mackanin left his office in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park, his frustration level had spiked. The Phillies played the far-superior Red Sox tough but came away with a 6-5 loss in 11 innings to fall 20 games under .500 (see Instant Replay).

And it's not even summer yet.

The Phillies' sixth straight loss was particularly frustrating because they blew an early four-run lead and a late one-run lead before watching Dustin Pedroia single home the game-winning run with one out in the 11th.

Pedroia's base hit came against right-hander Casey Fien, who was in his third inning of work after pitching two scoreless frames. The groundball hit was the blow that finished the Phillies. The one that staggered them came with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning — a laser beam home run over the Green Monster by Hanley Ramirez against veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit. The blast tied the game at 5-5.

Benoit opened the frame by retiring a pair of left-handed hitters, Mitch Moreland and Andrew Benintendi. He then threw a first-pitch slider to Ramirez.

Boom!

"It was funny because they had those two lefties up and Benoit handled them very well," Mackanin said. "And, of course, Ramirez — you can't make a mistake to him and first pitch he threw him, a cement mixer down the middle. That's not what he wanted to do but he did it."

Benoit has allowed three runs in 1 2/3 innings since coming off the disabled list Sunday. He did not stick around to speak with reporters after the game.

The Phillies scored four times against Boston starter Rick Porcello in the first inning, a nice cushion for Jerad Eickhoff, who hadn't won a game in a span of 14 starts, dating to last September.

Eickhoff did not lock down the lead — he gave it up on an unearned run in the fourth — but the Phils got the lead back in the fifth and this time Eickhoff delivered two scoreless innings.

"I battled the best I could to keep us in the game," the right-hander said.

Mackanin liked the effort.

"He battled," Mackanin said. "He's a blue-collar guy. He likes to compete. His command just needs to get better."

Eickhoff said he experienced some cramping in his right shoulder during the game. He said it was because of some dehydration and was "not big deal."

After Eickhoff left, the Phils got another strong inning from Pat Neshek in protecting the lead. Neshek has pitched 24 innings this season and allowed just two runs. With success like that, one had to wonder why Mackanin did not stick with the right-hander for the eighth inning. After all, he threw just seven pitches.

"He may be equipped to do it, but I don't want to use him up," Mackanin said. "You know, you can't use guys up like that. If we had the firepower offensively where I felt more comfortable, I would do it, but I don't want to do that. In fact, even in a tie game I've done that once or twice with him and Benoit and it's tough to do because when you have that one- or two-run lead, you want those guys to be available.

"I would have loved to send him back out. I just can't do that."

The Phillies had several big scoring chances late in the game, but none produced results. With two outs in the ninth, Howie Kendrick — he had an interesting game with three hits, three stolen bases and two errors at second base — was thrown out trying to steal second base. That took the bat out of the hands of Tommy Joseph, the Phils' best power threat.

"He had the green light," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "It was a pretty close play. At this point, we've got to take chances. We can't sit back. We don't have the firepower to sit back, although we got 14 hits today. But after that first inning we only scored one run."

The Phils had the leadoff man on base in the 10th and 11th innings and both times hard-throwing Matt Barnes pitched out of trouble. He struck out five in two innings and got the win when the Sox rallied for the winning run in the bottom of the 11th.

"We battled hard," Mackanin said. "I'm happy for that."