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September 13, 2016

Bullpen implodes as Phils fall to Pirates

While Roman Quinn appears to be in the big leagues for the next three weeks in a mini-audition for his possible big league readiness for the 2017 season, fellow prospect Jorge Alfaro is on more of the getting-acclimated tract.

After the catching prospect arrived on Sunday, manager Pete Mackanin said Alfaro would be limited to somewhere between six and eight starts in the team’s final 20 games. The first of those starts came Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I’m anxious to see him,” Mackanin said before the game. “I saw him in the spring, but, you know, that’s the spring. He’s going to need work defensively.”

The prize of the Cole Hamels trade, Alfaro has intriguing tools, namely his power bat and power arm, but his other skills are a bit raw.

In 167 games at Double-A since 2014, Alfaro has racked up 189 strikeouts while walking 37 times. And his catching skills other than throwing out runners “need work,” too according to Mackanin.

“He’s a young catcher,” Mackanin said of the 23-year-old Alfaro, who missed a chunk of development time last year with a foot injury. “The mechanics and defensive ability is one thing. Calling a game is extremely important. And that’s a work in progress for everybody – knowing the league, knowing the hitters.”

With the Phillies clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Alfaro couldn’t block a Michael Mariot pitch. Pirates infield Jung Ho Kang, the game-tying run, scored from third base.

That was a tough pitch to block, arm side," Mackanin said afterward. "It was tough. Still, three walks. They scored without a hit. That was tough to take."

The growing pains of a young catcher would not sink the Phillies on Tuesday night, though. Jeanmar Gomez was the guilty party.

After the Phillies bats saved Alfaro in the right, Gomez took the mound in the ninth armed with a one-run lead. The closer didn’t retire any of the three batters he would face.

Sean Rodriguez lined a three-run home run into the first row of the right field seats as Pittsburgh came from behind to beat the Phillies, 5-3. The win was just the third for the Pirates in their last 15 games.

"It was a good game for eight innings," Mackanin said.

Gomez, who had converted 36 of his 40 save chances entering the night, began the ninth by walking Francisco Cervelli. And then Jordy Mercer doubled, putting the closer in the almost-impossible situation of having to escape a runners-on-second-and-third, no-out jam.

Instead, he served up a home run that sent a large portion of the 16,190 in attendance racing for the exit signs.

"In that spot, any pitch can be your last pitch," Gomez said. "For me, it was a tough day. Tomorrow is another day"

After being a rock at the back of the 'pen for the first half of the season, collecting 25 saves and sporting a 2.53 ERA in his first 40 appearances, Gomez has hit the skids lately. He has a 4.73 ERA and a .369 opponents' OBP in 24 appearances since July 18.

In the last month (since Aug. 14), Gomez has a 9.00 ERA (12 earned runs in 12 innings) in 14 appearances, with 24 of the 59 batters he's faced reaching safely on a hit or walk.

"I feel really confident with my pitches," said Gomez, who has previously insisted that being tired toward the end of a long season has not been an issue. "I threw a couple of sliders and they didn’t break the way I wanted, they were a little bit flat. I tried to execute pitches, but today was a tough day for me."

After scuffling against Ivan Nova (the Pirates starter struck out all nine batters in the lineup in the game’s first four innings) the Phillies rallied back a half inning earlier to put Gomez in position to nail down the win.

Quinn, the other rookie summoned from Double-A Reading over the weekend, got the offense started with a one-out walk in an at-bat he began buried 0-2 against hard-throwing Pirates reliever Felipe Rivero. Quinn advanced to second on a Maikel Franco single, to third in a Tommy Joseph walk, and then easily pranced home on a sacrifice fly by Freddy Galvis to give the Phillies their lead back ... for a half inning, at least.

Alfaro, making his first major league start, went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. Quinn, in his third straight start since arriving Sunday, went 2-for-3 with a walk, a bunt base hit, and two runs scored.

But the Phillies offense had its faults, too. They struck out 15 times in 31 total team at-bats. 

The Phils have racked up 130 strikeouts in 12 games this month, 12 more than the next closest team (Minnesota, 118).

"We're striking out too much," Mackanin said. 

Aaron Altherr (0-for-3, .197) and Peter Bourjos both struck out in the ninth. In the eighth, after Galvis's go-ahead sac fly, Darin Ruf went down swinging, too.

"We had a chance to add on, we didn’t do that," Mackanin said. "That could have been a game changer."

Alec Asher did his part before the bullpen blew Tuesday's game. He held the Pirates to two runs on four hits in 6 1/3 innings. Asher, who had a 9.31 ERA in seven starts with the Phils last year, has allowed just two earned runs in 12 1/3 innings (1.46 ERA) in his two big league starts in the last week.

"It's a world difference," Asher said. I just came in this year for a fresh start, kind of went about it a whole new mindset. And it's made a world of difference." 

Phillies starting pitchers have allowed three earned runs or fewer in 11 consecutive starts, their longest such stretch since an 11-game stretch in August of 2011. And unlike the current, mostly unproven rotation, the ’11 staff had the likes of Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Roy Oswalt making regular starts.

Hector Neris struck out two of the five batters he faced in a scoreless eighth inning and now has 94 strikeouts in a major league-leading 73 games. Neris is six strikeouts away from becoming just the fourth Phillies reliever to reach 100 in a single season, and the first since Jake Diekman struck out 100 in 2014.

• Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was ejected from the game in the sixth inning after apparently arguing that Maikel Franco was guilty of runner's interference on a fielder choice (and, in Hurdle's mind, a possible double play ground ball). The ejection was Hurdle's sixth of the season and 51st of his career (30 have come with Pittsburgh). 

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