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May 20, 2016

Phillies defense takes a holiday in 7-1 loss to Braves

The first batter of the game, former Phillie Ender Inciarte, ripped a ball toward third base. It handcuffed Maikel Franco. The second-year infielder was charged with an error.

Aaron Nola escaped the inning unharmed, however, when the infielder to Franco’s left, shortstop Freddy Galvis, made a pair of strong plays, capped by an inning-ending double play.

But the Franco play, not Galvis’s usual steady hands at short, was more indicative of how the night would go for Nola.

The final line read that Nola had allowed five runs (two earned) over seven innings. He really should have only been charged with one earned run.

Two innings after Franco’s game-opening gaffe, Nola fielded a bunt off the bat of Mallex Smith and appeared to nip the speedy rookie at first base. Smith was called out.

But, after the Atlanta Braves requested a review, the play was overturned. Smith was safe ...  but only because first baseman Ryan Howard took his foot off the bag prematurely. Three batters later, Freddie Freeman homered to give Atlanta a one-run lead.

"I would have liked to have seen him reach out a little bit," manager Pete Mackanin said of the Howard non-error. "You have to kind of straddle the bag on a play like that, but I would have liked to see him stretch out."

And so it went for Nola and the Phillies in a 7-1 defeat on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park. It was the first time in six starts the Phillies lost a game Nola started.

"With two outs, I have to limit the damage, I have to really focus in and get the third out," said Nola, who gave up a pair of two-out, two run home runs, to Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis. "Tonight, I felt like I did that, but I made a couple of mistakes with two outs and they made me pay for them."

In each inning that he served up those home runs, however, Nola put his team in position to get three outs. The defense failed him.

"We have to tighten up tomorrow," Mackanin said.

The Phillies entered the game with a chance to claim their share of first place in the National League East. A Phillies victory coupled with a loss by the Washington Nationals in Miami meant the two teams would have the same record atop the division.

Instead of that scenario unfolding, the opposite happened: the Nats beat the Fish and the Phillies played like a team that had no business sharing a sentence with the words ‘first place.’

Franco, who has also done his share of struggling in the batter’s box this year, was briefly charged with three errors on Friday. But after another replay review, one was taken away as the play was overturned and ruled an out.

Franco’s second miscue led to the Braves rally that put the game away. Smith hit a bouncing ball Franco’s way, the third baseman bobbled it, and rather than eating it with the fleet-footed base runner hard charging toward first, Franco fired it high and wide, nearly giving Atlanta’s first base coach Eddie Perez an unplanned buzzcut.

It was ruled a two-base error to begin the inning. A Gordon Beckham bloop single and a Nick Markakis blast later, it was 5-1 Braves.

"Usually everyone goes through a stretch where they’re not playing their best, and Maikel is in that little lull," Mackanin said. "I think he’s letting his at-bats carry over to his defense a little bit. He’s been working extra. He’s been doing everything we want him to do. He just needs to get out of the funk he’s in, and put together a good game or two in a row and get back on track."

Franco disagreed with the idea that his slumping offense is carrying over to his defense. Or that he's pressing given his struggles.

"I don’t think I’m trying to do too much," Franco said. "Sometimes this happens. But I’m going to stay focused, and stay positive every single day. Every single day is different."

• Ryan Howard drove in the Phillies lone run on Friday, but it came on a ground ball out to second base with two men in scoring position. Not exactly the kind of RBI from the Big Piece Circa 2006-11. Howard (0-for-3 with a walk on Friday) is hitless in his last 12 at-bats. He is hitting .164 on the season (188th out of 188 qualifying hitters in baseball). He is hitting .095 (4-for-42) in May.

 There can't be any valid reason the left-handed hitting Howard starts over right-handed hitting rookie Tommy Joseph on Saturday, when the Phillies are matched up against Braves right-hander Williams Perez. Joseph, who homered in his last start on Wednesday night, has as many hits since being called up last week (four, in 10 at-bats) than Howard has all month.

Howard did do this on Friday, though: he drew his 694th career walk, tying Willie Jones for seventh all-time in Phillies history. I'm sure this excites you as much as it did me when it was announced in the press box. 

• Freddie Freeman has hit eight home runs this season. Four of those have come in four games against the Phillies this season. Two of those came Friday night. Freeman has now hit 13 home runs in 98 career games against the Phils. But imagine what Mets fans must feel like: Freeman has 16 home runs in 94 games against New York.

• How do you know Aaron Nola didn't exactly struggle on Friday? He actually lowered his season ERA, from 2.89 to 2.85. Nola had gone 36 consecutive innings without allowing a home run before Freeman's two-run shot in the third inning; it was the longest streak by a Phillies pitcher since Cole Hamels had two 37-inning streaks in 2014.

Following his first loss in six starts (since April 16), Nola was sporting a 0.90 WHIP on the season, which ranks third in the National League behind the guys who have claimed the last three NL Cy Young awards, Clayton Kershaw (0.70) and Jake Arrieta (0.84). 

Nola's 5.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio also ranks third in the NL, behind Kershaw (22.00) and Noah Syndergaard (7.22). And there was also this: 

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