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May 06, 2017

The home runs – and losses – keep on coming for reeling Phillies

Andrew Toles, Cody Bellinger (2), Yasiel Puig, and Justin Turner. Chris Taylor and Toles. Javier Baez. Kris Bryant, Baez, and Kyle Schwarber. Miguel Montero. Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon. Zimmerman and Rendon.

You’ve probably figured out this riddle by now, or clicked out of the story because it’s the day after Cinco De Mayo and you can’t stomach reading about the Phillies after watching the Phillies, particularly after that first paragraph.

Since the Nightmare at Chavez Ravine, when Hector Neris blew a save in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Dodgers by serving up three straight home runs, the Phils pitching staff has become infected with the virus. Like that Nike commercial from a decade and a half ago, Phillies pitchers are just like “chicks” in that they dig the long ball.

Or, at the very least, they’ve been prone to cases of whiplash when they turn around to watch a pitch they’ve thrown land in the waiting hands of a fan behind the outfield fence.

Beginning last Saturday in Los Angeles and through Saturday night in South Philly, Phillies pitchers have surrendered 17 home runs in their last eight games. Despite all of those long balls, the Phils saw their opponents score more than six runs in just one of those games.

The takeaway: the Phillies have been in games until they’re not, the minute an opponent swats another souvenir into the seats.

It happened to Nick Pivetta in his first taste of Citizens Bank Park on Friday night, when he allowed back-to-back home runs to Zimmerman and Rendon. It happened on Saturday night, too, when Vince Velasquez was in the midst of his best start of the young 2017 season until a trio of one-out hits became more troubling when Rendon turned on a 1-1 fastball and sent it 385-feet away for a stomach-ache-inducing blast.

In the span of two batters in the sixth inning, a 2-1 Nationals lead became a 6-1 Nationals lead, all because another Phillies pitcher couldn’t keep a baseball from leaving the playing surface. The end result was a 6-2 defeat, the eighth loss in the last nine games for the reeling Phillies.

"It sucks," Cameron Rupp, who homered for the Phillies, said of the seemingly never-ending home run assault from their opponents in the last week. "It’s part of it. The other team is hot right now. They’re good hitters. They’ve got veteran hitters that don’t miss, if you want to say mistakes, even though they weren’t. 

"They were quality pitches. They were right where we wanted to go. ... Tip your hat to them. This game sucks. It’s one of those things where you can make the right pitches and you get beat."

Velasquez doesn't want to get into the habit of tipping his cap, but had the same analysis as Rupp after facing a scorching-hot Nationals team (that isn't a treat to pitch to even without Bryce Harper, as they've been in each of the last two nights).

"Those guys are just locked in," Velasquez said. "You know, they’re hot. Down on the ground, pick it up, out in front, caught the barrel on it. And then the ball to Rendon, a little bit inside. When you execute a pitch like that and they do damage with it, you have to tip your cap to them. You know, it’s tough to give them credit, but those pitches were down and inside. They managed to put the barrel on the ball and it went out."

For the first time in six starts this season, Velasquez gave the Phillies seven innings. For the first time since his final start of 2016, Velasquez didn’t walk a batter. He struck out eight.

"Vinny pitched very well," manager Pete Mackanin said. "He kept his pitch count down early then got into trouble a little bit later with the home runs. The middle of their lineup is just really good."

The first home run Velasquez allowed, to the monster that has inhabited Ryan Zimmerman’s oft-injured, 32-year-old body this season, wasn’t a big deal. Sure it turned a 1-0 lead into a 2-1 deficit, but, you know, it is OK to put a couple of crooked runs onto the home half of the scoreboard every so often, Phillies’ offense.

The second home run, the Rendon blast with a 100-MPH exit velocity, was an absolute killer, sending a chunk of the 21,298 at Citizens Bank Park through the exits for an earlier trip home on a crisp Saturday night in South Philly.

And about all of those home runs, 17 since last Saturday night and a major league-high 46 in 29 games on the season, Pete?

“I think it's just a matter of locating pitches,” Mackanin said prior to the game. “It's pitching. I think possibly that in baseball the premium put on velocity has something to do with that to where it doesn't matter how hard you throw, you still have to locate.

“Pivetta was throwing 95, 96, 97 and they hit his fastball. Well-located, they don't hit it. I'm not saying just Pivetta, but throughout baseball, you see a lot of that. So we'll figure out.”

They’ll figure it out. On some other night, surely.

Perhaps it is only fair to point out that the three teams that have accounted for all 17 of those home runs in the last eight days (and 24 of the grand total of 46) are arguably the three best teams in the league, a trio of teams favored to represent the National League in the World Series. The Dodgers, Cubs, and Nationals all have formidable lineups full of All-Stars and MVP candidates.

Unlike, say, the Phillies.

"I think that has a lot to do with it," Mackanin said after the game of the wild theory that good-hitting teams hit a fair amount of home runs. "They don't let you get away with any mistakes. The Nationals, the Mets when (Yoenis) Cespedes was there. Those guys hit home runs. The Dodgers. The Cubs. You can't make mistakes to those guys. They've capitalized on them. That's where we're trying to get to, to where we don't miss those mistakes."

For the second straight night, the Phillies were held to two runs. They are 1-8 this season when they score three runs or fewer and 11-9 when they manage to score four runs or more. 

On Sunday afternoon (a 2:35 p.m. start, due to the Broad Street Run), the Phillies will try to avoid a sweep with right-hander Tanner Roark set to take the mound for Washington. Roark is 3-0 with a 1.10 ERA in six starts against the Phillies since the beginning of the 2016 season.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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