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May 22, 2017

For starters, the free-falling Phillies need more from their rotation

The Phillies have not won back-to-back games in nearly four weeks. While the National League East outside of Washington has been the baseball equivalent of a train wreck, the Phils entered play a week before Memorial Day just one game ahead of the woeful Miami Marlins.

The Phils’ recent stretch of baseball (they’re 4-14 in May, and 4-17 since last winning two in a row on April 26-27) has put them on a crash course for what everyone feels like an eventual landing for last place. Whether it’s poor starting pitching (most often) or a lack of offense (when they wasted Aaron Nola’s return Sunday), the product of baseball they’ve played in the last month borders on unwatchable.

“I tell you what, I’m getting frustrated, too,” general manager Matt Klentak said Monday afternoon inside the home dugout at Citizens Bank Park, where the Phillies were set to open a seven-game homestead against the Colorado Rockies. “I think this team is better, there is more talent on this team than what has shown, in terms of our record. We’ll pull out of it. We will. That’s what talented players will do. But I’m not going to tell the fans they shouldn’t be frustrated, we've gone through a tough stretch.”

Klentak wouldn’t specify any one area of concern, pointing to consistent play from the team as a whole. But we’ll point one out for him:

When Vince Velasquez was bounced from Saturday’s start in Pittsburgh the he ran into trouble and couldn’t get out of it on his own in the sixth inning, it marked the 24th time in a 40-game span that a Phillies’ starter failed to pitch at least six innings.

The domino effect that has on the rest of the team is real. It makes a struggling ‘pen work more more often (a relief corps being asked to cover three-plus innings nightly it never ideal, even for contending teams). And it has an adverse affect on morale of a young team, knowing they have to mount some kind of a comeback or continue to churn out runs in late innings because a starting pitcher has failed to do his part.

Entering Monday’s game, Phillies starters have averaged 5.48 innings per start in 2017. Surprisingly, seven teams have seen their rotation shoulder an even smaller workload: Cincinnati (4.93 IP per start), Miami (5.08), Milwaukee (5.22), New York Mets (5.37), Chicago Cubs (5.42), Minnesota (5.44), and Baltimore (5.45).

But the Phils’ staff is trending downward: they’ve averaged 5.31 innings per start in May. Oh, and they have a 5.74 ERA in those 18 games this month, a number that includes Nola's fine performance (seven innings, one run) on Sunday.

“It's going to be tough to get through,” manager Pete Mackanin said of the lack of innings his starters have given him. “It is tough to get through.”

“A lot of these guys are the same guys who were here last year that were pitching deeper into games and having more success,” Klentak said. “We have every reason to believe that will improve.”

Jerad Eickhoff, Monday night’s starter, is probably someone who came to mind for Klentak. Eickhoff went four straight starts of fewer than six innings before delivering six last week in Texas. Eickhoff went at least six innings in 23 of his 33 starts in his first full big league season in 2016.

But then there is fellow right-hander Vince Velasquez, two years Eickhoff’s junior. Velasquez has pitched more than six innings two times in eight starts this season; last season, Velasquez pitched more than six innings just three times in 24 starts.

Velasquez, who already showed signs of real self-doubts earlier this season, was particularly hard on himself following Saturday’s game at PNC Park.

“I’m just clueless right now,” he told reporters. “It's just a lack of commitment, a lack of concentration, just a lack of everything.”

Velasquez’s consistent ability to run up pitch counts early and inability to pitch through a lineup with success the second or third time through has led many to wonder if he’d make more sense as a bullpen piece. (Granted that’s probably more of a question for 2018: a non-contending team simply doesn’t need a closer and can afford to let a 24-year-old pitcher continue his development in big league games).

“For right now, we’re committed to finding out what he can do in the rotation,” Klentak said. “We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it in the early parts of last year and we’ve seen it in parts of this year where he has that ‘ah ha’ moment where this guy is in the role that he’s meant to be in. It hasn’t been a clear path exactly. He’s had some bumps along the way. But most pitchers do, especially when they get to the big leagues for as young as he was when he got here.

“We are very much committed to him being a starter. If over the course of time, we’re forced to make an adjustment, then we will. We’re not going to be rigid in our decision making. But right now, we’re not there.”

“It's hard to sustain when you don't get enough innings out of the (starters); it all affects everybody else,” Mackanin said. “We had a game the other day where I used (Pat) Neshek to (Joaquin) Benoit to (Hector) Neris and it was a beautiful thing for me.

Where the Phillies are at is a tricky place, especially for a team in the midst of playing 20 games in 20 days: hoping and praying the pitcher they send to the mound to start the game came cover at least two-thirds of that game. It just hasn’t happened in the last four weeks, and thus, a free fall that’s destined to land them in last place of baseball’s worst division.

“It's hard to sustain when you don't get enough innings out of the (starters); it all affects everybody else,” Mackanin said. “We had a game the other day where I used (Pat) Neshek to (Joaquin) Benoit to (Hector) Neris and it was a beautiful thing for me. I was happy to see it, finally… Nola had 89 pitches (on Sunday). If we had a lead I could have left him out there for another inning. That's the type of situation you want. It makes it easier to run your bullpen. Then you have guys that are well rested and you don't have to worry about that.

“I've got one lefty (Joely Rodriguez). I have to choose to use him sometimes in the fifth or sixth inning, and then I don't have him for later in the game when I'd like to have him. So you have to choose the time where you think it's important to get somebody out. When you have to do it and you can't save him for the sixth or maybe the seventh inning, then it's not as easy. For example, Joely, I've had to use long because I don't have a long guy because a guy threw long the previous day. Now I have to use him. I'm not crying about it. It just is what it is.”

An optimist, as Klentak fashions himself, will look at the 2017 schedule and say it’s only been seven weeks and that the young pitchers will bounce back in the months ahead. But a pessimist will tell you that there are still 18 weeks remaining on the season, and that’s an awful lot of games for the ‘pen to continue to cover and the lineup to battle back during when their starters come up short.

If the trend continues into June, is there any kind of recourse?

“With the versatility on our bench we have the ability to carry an extra pitcher, which we've done at various times through the first few weeks of the year,” Klentak said of carrying an extra pitcher in the ‘pen. “There are ways we can cover that. We have plenty of starting pitchers down at Triple-A that we can call up like you've seen with Lively and Thompson and Pivetta at various times. So we can cover it. Obviously, it's important for the future of the franchise that these young starters do develop properly and get the innings. I think they will. I think they'll come out of it.

“Vince's line the other day doesn't look good. I know he was very frustrated after the game. If you isolate and watch the first few innings of his outing, his first inning was awesome. He was elevating, he was putting balls past the hitters' barrels. He has the ability to do it. Obviously to do it for shorter stretches is one thing. But for him to be able to sustain that for 90 or 100 pitches and get into the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, that's the next phase of his development.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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