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June 13, 2024

Phillies quick hits: Pair of rough starts doom series against Red Sox

The Phillies dropped a road series against the Boston Red Sox due to uncharacteristically poor starting pitching in the final two contests of the three-game set.

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Aaron-Nola-Phillies-Red-Sox-6.13.24-MLB.jpg David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Nola had a brutal outing for the first time in a long time.

After returning to the U.S. following their two-game series against the New York Mets in London, the Phillies headed to Fenway Park for a three-game set against the Boston Red Sox. Zack Wheeler was outstanding in the series opener, but Cristopher Sánchez and Aaron Nola failed to get the job done in the following games. Here is what stood out from the team's trip to one of baseball's signature venues:

Kyle Schwarber shows signs of power surge

On Monday's off day, I wrote about a few Phillies-related musings, including Schwarber's season -- which has not followed the typical trends of his tenure in Philadelphia. Most notably, I opined on his unusual lack of power. For a few hours, the front page of featured a picture of Schwarber and the words "Power Outage." 

Naturally, on the very first pitch of Tuesday's game, Red Sox starting pitcher Kutter Crawford threw a fastball right down the middle, and Schwarber sent it into orbit. The ball landed 444 feet away from home plate, a monster shot from a player who has hit plenty of them during his career. Phillies television play-by-play announcer Tom McCarthy had not even finished reading an advertisement by the time the ball hit the seats:

In the top of the fifth inning, Schwarber came up again, and on the second pitch of the at-bat, Crawford left a splitter over the middle of the plate. Once again, the Phillies' left-handed slugger did damage. This one traveled 427 feet -- though the exit velocities on both homers were nearly identical -- sailing over the visitor's bullpen, much to the delight of the Phillies' relief pitchers.

Heading into this series, Schwarber's batting average (.235) and on-base percentage (.357) were considerably higher than they have been in either full season he has played with the Phillies so far. But his power -- usually relentless -- had taken a step back. If he can continue to improve his on-base skills while also getting back to hitting home runs at the rate he typically has since signing in Philadelphia, Schwarber will end up having his most well-rounded season at the plate since his All-Star campaign in 2021.

Zack Wheeler throws another gem

Wheeler ran into trouble early in the series opener Tuesday night, allowing a single, double and sacrifice fly to the first three batters he faced. From then on, he was absolutely lights out. Wheeler threw seven innings of one-run ball, allowing only three hits and walking one. 

If Phillies manager Rob Thomson did not prioritize getting his relievers consistent work, Wheeler could have easily gone another inning. The Phillies' right-hander only threw 88 pitches across those seven innings, and was pitching on a week's worth of rest thanks to the off days that surrounded the London Series.

Wheeler might be the current frontrunner to win the National League's Cy Young Award -- if it is not him, it may be his teammate, Ranger Suárez -- and it appears as if most of the baseball world acknowledges his greatness at this point. People hold Wheeler's talent in high regard -- everybody knows he throws hard, his new (and filthy) splitter has been appreciated and his ability to pitch well in big games has been recognized.

The only thing that may be under the radar with Wheeler these days is his consistency. It is genuinely stunning if he makes a start and is not fantastic. He has made 14 starts this season; one of them could be considered poor, one of them could be considered average and the rest range from solid to outstanding:

Wheeler is in the final season of a five-year, $118 million deal with the Phillies -- quite possibly the best free agent signing in the very long history of the club, and one of the most successful free agent contracts given to a pitcher in recent baseball history -- with a three-year, $126 million extension kicking in at the start of 2025.

It is possible to craft an argument that Suárez has been slightly better than Wheeler in 2024. But, all things considered, it is hard not to call Wheeler the best starting pitcher in all of baseball.

Cristopher Sánchez struggles in loss

Perhaps another jinx from me: on Wednesday morning, I published a story breaking downall of the numbers behind Sánchez's tremendous success in 2024. On Wednesday evening, for the first time in many starts, the Phillies' lanky left-hander was not sharp.

Sánchez had tremendous difficulty throwing strikes; nearly half of his pitches across four-plus innings were balls. Sánchez's defense did him no favors, but he was missing his spots frequently, and when he was in the zone, his pitches were getting hit hard by Red Sox batters.

Sánchez's final line Wednesday night: 4.0 innings pitched, seven hits, four runs (all earned), two walks and two strikeouts on 67 pitches (35 strikes).

Sánchez has done enough over the last year and a half or so that one bad start should not cloud anybody's perception of him. But, of course, it is suboptimal to see him revert to the tendencies that had him on the verge of falling out of favor before his initial breakout in 2023.

Aaron Nola ties career-high eight earned runs in loss

Nola had made two starts at Fenway Park in his career before Thursday night, and they were both gems. Across the pair of outings, he amassed 15.0 innings pitched and allowed only eight hits and three earned runs.

Nola had not given up more than four earned runs in a start in 2024 since his season debut, when he was rocked by the Atlanta Braves. He allowed four earned runs in two different innings in this one. By the time the second inning had finished, Nola had allowed five doubles -- more than he had ever yielded in a single outing in his entire major league career.

Nola's final line: 3.2 innings, 11 hits, eight runs (all earned), two strikeouts and two walks on 90 pitches (53 strikes). The home plate umpire was not his friend in this one, either, for what it's worth. Phillies catcher Garrett Stubbs, pitching coach Caleb Cotham and Thomson were all seen objecting to a few calls in which Nola appeared to have been squeezed.

Nola had been outstanding in his prior five starts, a stretch that started with a complete game shutout at Citi Field against the New York Mets. During that period, he had a 1.53 ERA across 35.1 innings and held opposing hitters to a .133/.181/.250 slash line.

The Phillies' starting pitching has been comically good all year, and it was inevitable that eventually their arms would be prone to blow-ups. Sánchez and Nola each struggled for the first time in quite a while during this series, and as a result, the Phillies dropped two of three.

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