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June 18, 2016

Diamondbacks hand reeling Phillies fifth straight defeat

Jerad Eickhoff kicked at the dirt and knew what was coming. His manager.

With his Phillies team trailing by just two runs in the top of the sixth inning, Eickhoff allowed a two-out hit to Arizona’s nine-hole hitter Nick Ahmed on an 0-2 curveball. Ahmed entered the day hitting .211 with the second-lowest OPS in baseball among the 169 players with enough plate appearances to qualify.

Eickhoff followed the two-out single by immediately falling behind Jean Segura on two pitches and eventually walking him on five pitches.

And then the angry dirt kicking. And then the arrival of his manager to the mound, having already waved down the bullpen for a reliever.

It was difficult to pin the latest loss for the home team at Citizens Bank Park on the shoulders of the 25-year-old starting pitcher who began the 2015 season at Double-A. The Phillies offense supported him with all of two base runners during the five innings Eickhoff was still in the game when they batted.

But everyone has been aware of the season-long struggles of the Phillies offense. A wave of bats that are crucial to the team’s rebuild await their eventual promotions from Allentown and Reading.

The starting pitching that helped the Phillies open up the season as one of baseball’s surprise teams entering Memorial Day weekend, though? The rotation of twenty-somethings has hit a collective wall this month.

Armed with a one-run lead in the fifth inning, Eickhoff served up a pair of home runs – to Ahmed, who had three hits, and to perennial MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidton another 0-2 pitch – and suffered his ninth loss of the season in a 4-1 defeat to the Diamondbacks.

"The singles I could care less about," said Eickhoff, who yielded nine hits, seven singles and two home runs, in 5 2/3 innings. "I think there were seven of them, but they didn’t score. Well, maybe one did. But I see it as one pitch, an 0-2 slider to Goldy for a two-run home run. That pitch isn’t made and it’s a one-run game. It’s really as simple as that."

The Phillies (30-39) have lost five straight games and nine of their last 10.

The Phillies have not scored more than three runs in a game since Monday night in Toronto. They have scored three runs or fewer in 16 of the 22 games they’ve played since they arrived in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend last month.

"We’re not scoring enough runs, obviously," Mackanin said. "That’s what it boils down to. I’ve been saying it all year. These guys have to turn it around."

But, as Mackanin acknowledged, this is not news. A regular lineup that includes just two players who could expect to be here when the rebuild is complete is not a regular lineup that you can expect regular production from daily.

The more troubling development is from the pitcher brethren.

In the first two months of the season, the Phillies young rotation (Charlie Morton is the only pitcher over 30 who has made a start for the team this season) had a 3.88 ERA in 52 games.

In June, a rotation that’s included Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez, Adam Morgan, and rookie Zach Eflin has a 5.91 ERA in 17 games. That’s an ERA jump of more than two runs (and it was actually worse, at 5.99 this month, before Eickhoff delivered his mostly strong but still unstable 5 2/3 innings on Saturday).

The starting staff's numbers have been on the rise (in a bad way) in each month: entering Saturday, opponents were hitting .315 with a .923 OPS against them in June after they were hitting .263/.765 in May, and .221/.651 in April.

Phillies rotation on the decline (numbers through Saturday's game):

 April/May  June
 ERA3.88 5.91 
WHIP 1.176 1.676 
 HR/91.2  2.1
 K/BB3.88  2.67
 H/98.3 11.7 

Mackanin was asked about his young staff's recent struggles earlier this week:

"I’ve been asked has there been any issues of pitchers complaining about not having any offense," the manager said. "Although I haven't seen it, it’s got to (wear) on you after a while. They might feel like they can’t afford to make a bad pitch so they’re not attacking the hitters as much as they did before. That might be a thing. I don’t know… It might be subtly what they’re doing, “Boy, I can’t give up more than 1 or 2 runs because we don’t score more than 1-2 runs.” I can’t say that’s a fact, but it very well could be. 

"Then again, over the course of a season, there are 162 games. That’s the real test of how good of a team you have. Teams start out poorly, players start out slowly. (Freddie) Freeman had a hell of a series (this week), he went from .250 to .265 in a four-game series. Everything happens quickly. The cream rises to the top by the time the season is over.

 "I’ve always felt you’re going to hit what you’re supposed to hit, and you’re going to pitch like you’re supposed to pitch, according to your talent level. So, by the end of the year, hopefully we’ll have a real good idea on how real some of these guys are." 

Putting too much stock into one month of results would be just as unwise as thinking the season's first two months were a harbinger for a 162-game season. As Mackanin said, you have to let the entirety of the season play out.

But Mackanin mentioned another hurdle his young rotation has to overcome this season: unlike Cole Hamels with Jamie Moyer or Kyle Kendrick with Roy Halladay, this rotation doesn't have a leader to follow on a daily basis.

"They don't have that solid, No. 1-type starter to carry them and emulate," Mackanin said. "They're all kind of in their own way trying to figure it out without anyone to look up to, likewise with our hitting. It's tough for the young guys."

  • The Good: Zack Greinke looked an awful lot like Zack Greinke, and not the pitcher who took a 4.71 ERA coming into June and entered into Saturday's game with a higher ERA and WHIP than Jerad Eickhoff. "Vintage Greinke," as Mackanin called it, held the Phillies to three hits and one run (an Odubel Herrera home run) in eight innings; he struck out six and walked one.

  Greinke needed just 56 pitches to get through his first five innings and retired 13 in a row at one point and 17 out of 18 in between Herrera's home run and the start of the seventh inning.

  "You know what you are getting when you see his name penciled in as a starter," said Cody Asche, who was hitless in four at-bats from the leadoff spot in the Phillies lineup on Saturday. "You know he’s tough, but as a team, we’ve got to be tougher. I can only speak for myself, but I’m disappointed in the way that I let him get me out four times – so that’s the toughest thing to swallow after that loss. Not making him adjust to us. If you let a Cy Young quality pitcher do that, you are going to get the results that you got."

  • The Bad: Ryan Howard's first start since Tuesday (and just his third at first base this month) came against Greinke. Howard went 0-for-4 with a strikeout to drop his batting average to a season-low .145 and his OPS to .546. 

  "He had some numbers off Greinke," Mackanin said of Howard, who came into the day 4-for-15 with 4 RBI in his career against Greinke. "He had some numbers off Greinke and I need to play him to keep him sharp. He's hit a couple or three home runs off Greinke in the past."

  Howard does not have a home run in his career against Greinke, actually. Since April 30, Howard is hitting .094 (9-for-96) with 38 strikeouts.

  • The Ugly: Maikel Franco was shifted out of the middle of the lineup and into the sixth spot of Mackanin's lineup on Saturday. It ended a run of 140 starts for Franco hitting in the third, fourth, or fifth spots in the batting order; Franco hit seventh in his 16th career big league game in September of 2014.

  Franco, expected to be a pillar of a young lineup in 2016, went 0-for-3 with a strikeout on Saturday. He did not hit a ball out of the infield. Franco is hitless in his last 12 at-bats with five strikeouts. 

  Franco is hitting .175 (11-for-63) in the last three weeks (18 games).

  "It’s not happening right now," Franco said. "I mean it’s totally frustrating for everybody, because you want to do something to help your team, you want to go out there with energy and everything like that. Nothing good is happening right now. It’s frustrating for everybody. The only thing I say is you have to stay positive, stay strong. Keep doing what you’re doing and try to get better."

   Is he guilty of overswinging, something Mackanin observed on Friday night?

  "Sometimes, yeah," he said. "I’ll he honest. I think sometimes I try to do too much. But it happens in the game."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21