Another gem for Aaron Nola, but Joaquin Benoit, Phillies suffer late loss to Brewers

Another gem for Aaron Nola, but Joaquin Benoit, Phillies suffer late loss to Brewers

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MILWAUKEE -- As the Phillies move into the second half of this rebuilding season, their focus — aside from winning games — is identifying building blocks for the future.

And it looks like they may have found a big one in their starting rotation.

Aaron Nola pitched a gem Saturday night, holding the NL Central-leading Brewers to two runs on seven hits and a pair of walks while striking out seven over six innings in the Phillies' 3-2 loss (see Instant Replay). His strong work was undone in the eighth inning when Joaquin Benoit served up a homer to Travis Shaw the broke a 2-2 tie. Benoit picked up the loss.

"You hold this team to two runs over six innings, you've done a good job," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said of Nola. 

Nola missed a chance to improve to 3-0 lifetime against Milwaukee by serving up a game-tying home run to Hernan Perez in his final inning but has left an impression over his last five outings, going 3-1 with a 1.78 ERA during that stretch.

"Just getting ahead in the count and getting the leadoff hitter out has been key for me," Nola said. "Those are the biggest thing that takes stress off you each inning. Tonight, I let some leadoff guys on and didn't get strike one enough."

A first-round pick of the Phillies (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft, Nola made a strong impression as a rookie, going 6-2 with a 3.59 ERA in 13 starts in 2015. He made 20 starts for the team last season and went 6-9 but saw his ERA jump to 4.78 thanks to a rough six-week stretch during which he went 0-4 with a 13.50 mark in five starts.

A sprained ulnar collateral ligament combined with a mild flexor strain in his pitching elbow brought his season to an end in late July and after a rough spring training this season (0-3, 8.38 ERA), he took the victory in two of his first three starts before hitting another rough patch that saw him go 1-5 with a 4.89 ERA over his next six outings.

He's bounced back in a big way since.

"I'm really happy for him and for us because he really turned it around," Mackanin said. "When he started off in the big leagues, he looked like a really good find. Then he went through that period when he was searching. He had the arm issue, the command issue then he got out of it and now he's better than ever. That's a real bonus."

Mackanin looks at Nola and the way he worked through adversity early in his career as an example the rest of the young players on his roster can learn from as they continue their development.

"Just because you start off real good doesn't mean it's going to continue," he said. "You have to battle through any issues you have, which he did, and now he's learned and gone through that process and is better for it. That's what everybody has to do. (Nick) Pivetta's gotta do it, (Ben) Lively's gotta do it. They all have to do it. Even the hitters."

The Phillies have had some top-notch talent anchoring its rotation over the last decade. Nola isn't quite at the level of Cole Hamels or Roy Halliday just yet, but he's showing signs that he could get to that point in the not-so-distant future.

"I try to do everything I can to win every time I go out there," Nola said. "I do every thing I can to keep the ball low, give up the least runs I can and just battle. I'm going to battle my butt off every time I go out there and give them a chance to win."

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.