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April 08, 2016

Bullpen, base-running, and paltry offense have Phils off to worst start in a decade

NEW YORK – Despite being winless four games into the 2016 season, the Phillies, from a big picture standpoint, have had a clear direction for the last 16 months. They aren’t fooling themselves into thinking they can contend, like in 2013 or 2014.

They are rebuilding, stocking up prospects for the future. They know where they’re going.

But, sometimes, they still get lost on the bases.

In the middle of the eighth inning on Friday afternoon in Flushing, before the largest regular season crowd in the eight year history of Citi Field, Cesar Hernandez dashed from first base to second when an Odubel Herrera pop fly landed just behind the mound.

After hitting a run-scoring single that chipped away at the Mets six-run lead, and being one of two runners on base with just one out, Hernandez’s base-running gaffe crushed any hopes of a comeback rally.

The infield fly rule had been called. Double play. Inning over.

Six outs later, game over. The Phillies lost their fourth game to begin the season with a 7-2 defeat to the New York Mets.

“Unacceptable,” manager Pete Mackanin said. “You can't excuse that. That's just not a smart play. And he should know better. He’s an infielder. I know it's cold and maybe he lost focus but that's unacceptable.”

Through a translator, Hernandez said it was loud – there were 44,099 people in the ballpark – and that he couldn’t hear first base coach Mickey Morandini and that he simply reacted when the ball went uncaught hit the infield grass.

“However, there are no excuses,” Hernandez added. “I am an infielder. I know the rules. I take full responsibility for it. It won’t happen again.”

Hernandez’s error on the bases did not cost the Phillies the game, most likely. Their offense, which has scored two runs a piece in three of their four games, probably wasn’t going to epode for a half dozen runs in the final two innings against the reigning NL champion Mets.

But, it was another snapshot into how the Phillies are off to their worst start in a decade.

It’s the Phillies first 0-4 start in 10 years; the last came in 2006, the first year of Hall of Famer Pat Gillick’s tenure as general manager.

With a loss on Saturday night, when they are sending rookie Vince Velasquez out against the ageless Bartolo Colon, the Phillies would be off to their worst start since losing seven straight to begin the 1934 season. (This was smack dab in the worst stretch of baseball in Phillies history, by the way: from 1921-1945, the Phillies suffered a dozen 100-loss seasons in a 25 year-stretch).

Jerad Eickhoff, like Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola before him, put the Phillies in position to win on Friday, rebounding from a sluggish start to pitch into the sixth. Eickhoff, one of the few bright spots at the end of last year, had his team trailing 1-0 heading into the sixth inning against Jacob deGrom and the Mets.

He then ignited the offense, too. Eickhoff led off the sixth with a double off deGrom. He scored the game-tying run three batters later, when Odubel Herrera slashed a two-out single into left.

Maybe the Phillies would spoil the Mets home opener? No, probably not.

The tie game lasted about five minutes. The Mets led off the bottom of the sixth with three straight hits off Eickhoff. Two of those hits quickly turned into runs.

“He doesn’t look as sharp as I’ve seen him,” Mackanin said, “but he still only gave up two earned runs, which is fine.”

It was fine, and the Phillies were still in the game. But then the bullpen entered and made sure the score would be well out of reach for its offense.

Mackanin sent out four different relievers between the sixth and seventh innings – Dalier Hinojosa, Daniel Stumpf, James Russell and David Hernandez – and watched nine of the 15 Mets that came to the plate reach on a hit or a walk.

Less than two innings after tying the game at 1-1, the Phillies were down 7-1. The Triple-A season only got underway on Friday (the IronPigs lost both ends of a doubleheader) but it might be high time for management to make some roster changes in the major league ‘pen before the Phillies return home for the first regular season game at Citizens Bank Park on Monday.

It’s only four games, but you have to wonder if the Phillies can win a game with this personnel in the ‘pen.

“We're going to continue to try to find out,” Mackanin said. “That's the whole idea. I was encouraged by Stumpf. He has the stuff to get righties and lefties out. Russell should be better

than he's shown so far. … We have to get Hinojosa back on track like he was last year. We have to get Hernandez – we have to get everybody going. It seems like they're trying too hard.”

Perhaps the bullpen wouldn’t have been called upon quite as early, however, if Eickhoff was able to pitch deeper into his first start of the 2016 season. Perhaps Eickhoff would have had an opportunity to do that – or, at the very least, go one more inning deep – if Freddy Galvis didn’t drop a routine throw from the pitcher that would have likely been a double play rather than a gateway to the game’s first run.

But, then again, that was just one play in an otherwise harmless inning and it may have only cost Eickhoff one inning at the end of the day.

At the end of a day when a potential comeback rally when kerplunk on Hernandez’s brain cramp on the bases. And, at the end of a day, that, of course, culminated in a defeat for Mackanin’s club.

After four games, the Phillies are 0-4. Thankfully, they have some company: at the conclusion of the Phils-Mets game, the Padres, Braves, Cardinals and Twins were also winless.

But the Phillies stand alone in at least one category: the bullpen’s 12.66 ERA is the worst in baseball.

The team’s measly .262 on-base percentage ranked fifth worst. And they’re averaging three runs per game.

Other than that, everything is going well.

“We're not the best-hitting team in the league, but we're certainly better than what we're showing,” Mackanin said. “I know we swung the bats well in spring training. We're going to hit the ball better. We just need to get something going. I need to keep everybody positive and not get down on themselves.”

In the bottom of the seventh inning, while the Mets went to work separating themselves from the Phillies on the scoreboard, trash was littered all throughout the field on a windy day in New York City.