Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson looks to get Phillies, self on track

Phillies-Pirates 5 things: Jeremy Hellickson looks to get Phillies, self on track

Phillies (14-24) at Pirates (18-23)
7:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on 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. 

Phillies-Rangers 5 things: Offense could break out vs. Andrew Cashner

Phillies-Rangers 5 things: Offense could break out vs. Andrew Cashner

Phillies (14-22) at Rangers (20-20)
8:05 p.m. on CSN; streaming live on and the NBC Sports App

The Phillies are fading fast, losing Tuesday night in Texas for the 13th time in their last 16 games.

This ugly stretch was preceded by a six-game winning streak that had some believing the Phils could approach .500 in 2017, but through mid-May, they're on a 63-99 pace.

Their three-game series with the surging Rangers continues tonight against a much more hittable starting pitcher.

1. Jumping on Cashner
The Phillies couldn't touch Yu Darvish last night, which was to be expected. Darvish has excellent numbers against National League teams and the Phils had never seen his diverse repertoire.

Tonight, though, there would be less of an excuse for offensive futility. The Phillies face journeyman right-hander Andrew Cashner, who seems to disappoint at each stop.

Cashner is 0-3 with a 2.43 ERA this season but he's been a bit lucky to keep his ERA that low. He has 20 walks and just 17 strikeouts in 33⅓ innings, peripheral numbers that foreshadow some regression.

Cashner intrigued teams for years because of his big body and blazing fastball. He was once traded straight-up for Anthony Rizzo. But his stuff has declined through the years — his fastball averaged better than 96 mph in 2015, 94.9 mph in 2016 and is down to 92.9 mph this season.

To account for this, he's throwing more sinkers than four-seam fastballs. 

Cashner, who doesn't go deep into games, faced the Phillies three times last season and couldn't complete six innings in any of them. He gave up three runs in four innings, three in five innings, and also had his best start of the season against them (5⅓ shutout innings, nine strikeouts).

Current Phillies have gone 24 for 80 (.300) against Cashner. Odubel Herrera is 6 for 11 off of him with two home runs. Cesar Hernandez is 4 for 9 with a triple. Tommy Joseph is 3 for 5.

2. Another QS from Eflin?
Zach Eflin has given the Phillies a quality start his last four times out, keeping them in the game but getting a no-decision every time.

Eflin enters with a 2.81 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and .233 opponents' batting average. He's walked just four batters in 32 innings, including one in his last 27.

He struck out a season-high five his last time out against the Mariners, but that's not Eflin's game. He has just 17 K's in 32 innings and relies on the heaviness of his sinker to generate groundballs. He's induced 40 of them over his last three starts. His groundball rate of 47.6 percent is nearly 10 percent higher than the rest of the Phillies' pitching staff.

This won't be an easy outing for Eflin, having to deal with the DH in a hitter-friendly ballpark. 

Handling a hot American League offense on the road would do even more for Eflin's confidence, which is high right now as is. It would represent another step forward for the Phillies' most consistent starting pitcher the last three weeks.

3. Too reliant on Altherr?
Aaron Altherr and Tommy Joseph have been on a tear this month, hitting so well that it's mostly overshadowed the lack of recent production from the rest of the lineup.

In the four games this month in which Altherr has driven in multiple runs, the Phillies have averaged 7.8 runs per game. In the other nine, they've averaged 3.2 runs.

Cesar Hernandez is 2 for 18 over his last five games, and he has just one extra-base hit this month after totaling 10 in April.

Odubel Herrera has a .271 on-base percentage in 13 games this month with one walk and 16 strikeouts.

Maikel Franco, Michael Saunders and Freddy Galvis have hit a combined .216.

As I said Tuesday night on Phillies Postgame Live, there are really three paths to victory in baseball: slugging your way to a win, pitching your way to a win, or clutch-ing your way to a win (i.e. picking up key two-out hits, winning one-run games).

The Phillies' offense is improved but still not good enough to win consistently by itself. The pitching staff has taken a major step back. And their production with runners on base hasn't been awful — it's pretty much middle of the pack, but again, that won't win you games on its own.

4. More on the pitching staff
The Phillies on May 17 last season had a 3.91 ERA. This season they're at 4.69, sixth-worst in baseball and a half-run higher than the MLB average of 4.18.

Whether it's a lack of command or concentration, Phillies pitchers continue to leave too many pitches in the middle of the plate for hitters to tee off. They've allowed 59 home runs — most in the National League and 12 more than the league average.

More startling has been their failures when ahead in the count. Mike Napoli's two-run, insurance home run last night in the eighth inning was the fifth the Phillies have allowed this season on an 0-2 count. No other National League team has allowed more than two.

5. This and that
• The Phillies had just four hits and one extra-base hit last night. It was their second-worst offensive game of the season, ahead of only Game 2 of the season when they were shut out by the Reds.

• The American League is 39-24 so far this season in interleague play, meaning AL teams have essentially played like a 100-win team against the NL, continuing the annual theme of interleague dominance by the Junior Circuit.

• The Phils' 2-8 record through their last 10 games is worst in the majors over that stretch, tied with the Marlins and White Sox.

• Daniel Nava is the Phillies' DH tonight (see lineup).

Tonight's lineup: Phillies using Tommy Joseph as DH in Texas

Tonight's lineup: Phillies using Tommy Joseph as DH in Texas

Tommy Joseph is the Phillies' designated hitter tonight in their first game this season at an American League ballpark. 

Joseph bats cleanup, just as he did in his previous two starts. He's been red-hot in May, going 14 for 35 (.400) with five doubles, four home runs, nine RBIs and seven walks.

His 1.397 OPS is second-best in the majors in May behind only teammate Aaron Altherr (1.435). Mike Trout is third at 1.395.

Maikel Franco is in the six-hole for the second time this season. He'll likely remain there as long as Altherr and Joseph are hitting.

Brock Stassi plays first base for Joseph and bats ninth.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Odubel Herrera, CF
3. Aaron Altherr, LF
4. Tommy Joseph, DH
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Maikel Franco, 3B
7. Cameron Rupp, C
8. Freddy Galvis, SS
9. Brock Stassi, 1B

Jerad Eickhoff, P

And for the Rangers:

1. Delino DeShields, LF
2. Elvis Andrus, SS
3. Nomar Mazara, RF
4. Jonathan Lucroy, DH
5. Rougned Odor, 2B
6. Mike Napoli, 1B
7. Joey Gallo, 3B
8. Robinson Chirinos, C
9. Jared Hoying, CF

Yu Darvish, P