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June 02, 2017

Starting pitching continues to be a train wreck for dreadful Phillies

You remember June of 2015, don’t you?

We’d had highs, like American Pharoah becoming the first horse in 37 years to win the Triple Crown.

And we had lows (real lows), like racist scumbag Dylann Roof killing nine people inside a Charleston, S.C., church.

But if you’re a Phillies fan, you might remember June of 2015 as the month Ryne Sandberg resigned, a month pitching coach Bob McClure literally waved a white flag (OK, it was a towel) when the bullpen phone was off the hook, and a month when the pitching was downright dreadful.

Sure, Cole Hamels took the ball ever fifth day back then. The others taking turns in June of 2015? Sean O’Sullivan, Kevin Correia, Jerome Williams, Severino Gonzalez, Aaron Harang, Adam Morgan, and Phillippe Aumont.

Those eight starters, a former World Series MVP, a couple of former prospects and a bunch of retreads or fill-ins, went 2-15 with a 6.39 ERA in June of 2015. They yielded 25 home runs in 27 games and saw opponents sport a .897 OPS against them.

You probably know where this is going.

The Phillies just completed a month where they somehow received poorer production from their rotation. In May of 2017, Phillies starting pitchers went 2-16 with a 6.55 ERA, 34 home runs allowed and a .918 opponents’ OPS in 28 games.

And here’s the real kicker: the current rotation, unlike the 2015 one, is built around starters the Phillies hoped to build around. Vince Velasquez, Jerad Eickhoff, Aaron Nola, Nick Pivetta, Zach Eflin, and veteran Jeremy Hellickson.

Their startlingly bad month of May as a unit was not a positive sign for the state of the rebuild, no matter how much faith anyone has in all of the bats prospering in Lehigh Valley and Reading. The month of June didn’t get off to an encouraging start either … to say the least.

The 26-year-old Eickhoff, a model of consistency in 2016, when he sported a 3.65 ERA in 33 starts, continued a five-week-long slump (that has just so happened to coincide with the Phillies’ team-wide free fall) in an ugly 10-0 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Friday night at Citizens Bank Park.

"It's hard," Eickhoff said. "Everybody is in here working, everybody is in here giving their best effort. It's just not coming through, for myself especially. This is a game I came into trying to get this thing turned around and I just couldn't control my fastball." 

Eickhoff was down 1-0 less than five minutes after throwing the first pitch of the game. He allowed back-to-back hits to begin the night. He walked a career-high five batters in a career-low 2 2/3 innings.

Eickhoff, deserving of being placed on any underrated pitchers under 30 list entering the season, has a 6.94 ERA in his last seven starts. Like many a Phillies starter over the last six weeks, Eickhoff put his team in a hole early, a hole the offense couldn’t recover from and a hole that left too much work for a constantly taxed bullpen.

Friday night marked the third straight game a Phillies starter failed to pitch more than three innings. The Phillies (17-35) have lost 26 of their last 32 games.

It's tough to stop a skid when you don't have a starter capable of keeping you in a game beyond the fourth inning.

"It is very difficult, it's been hard the whole season," manager Pete Mackanin said. "Pitching and defense is what establishes what kind of game you're going to play. You have to have good pitching and good defense. And our pitching has faltered quite a bit."

The 2017 Phils are right in line with that 2015 bunch that went on to lose 99 games and claim the No.1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. From Memorial Day weekend through July 4, those ’15 Phillies lost 30 of 38 games.

General manager Matt Klentak was asked about the state of his young starting pitching prior to Eickhoff’s latest lame effort on Friday night.

“In the last few weeks I’ve done a lot of research looking at – this is sort of how I cope – but I’ve done a lot of research looking at other successful rebuilds and what those teams went through in the process of getting to where they are now,” Klentak said. “And what you find is those rosters, a year before, two years before, three years before, those teams reach the playoffs, those rosters were littered with players who were a year or two into their major league careers that were going through the same types of growing pains that are young players are going through. This is very common.

“If a year from now we’ve seen no progress from a bunch of them then it might be time to reevaluate and there might be a time to acknowledge some concern, but right now this is something young teams go through. This is something rebuilding teams go through.

“And look, by no means am I condoning the losing. I’m not saying we’re satisfied with that. I’m not saying that at all. But the stretch this team went through in May is not uncommon for teams that have gone through successful rebuilds. It’s June. We’re coming off an off day. It’s a beautiful day.”

It was a beautiful night, too. Well, at least if you came to Citizens Bank Park for the ambiance and not the actual baseball.

But, back to Klentak’s point for a second.

In 2012, a year after selling off Hunter Pence to the Phillies, the Houston Astros had their second of three consecutive 100-plus loss seasons. A 29-year-old J.A. Happ went 7-9 with a 4.83 ERA with that team and a 24-year-old, fellow left-hander named Dallas Keuchel went 3-8 with a 5.27 ERA in 16 starts.

Three years later, Houston was in the postseason. Five years later, the Astros have baseball’s best record.

The same season, back in 2012, the Cleveland Indians had a 26-year-old right-hander named Corey Kluber who went 2-5 with a 5.14 ERA in 12 starts and a 25-year-old second baseman, Jason Kipnis, with a .714 OPS in 152 games. The 2012 season was the Indians’ third 90-plus loss season in four years. They went to the World Series in 2016.

In 2013, the Chicago Cubs had a young first baseman slash .233/.323/.419 with 23 home runs in 160 games. Those 96-loss Cubs endured one more losing season before turning it around and winning the World Series with Anthony Rizzo in 2016.

Pick-pocketing fun numbers to defend a rebuild? Grasping at straws for some kind of possible light at the end of a tunnel?

How else do you expect a GM to cope?

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

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