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May 24, 2016

Verlander has his way with Phillies, who have lost 6 of last 9 games

Three years ago, the Phillies entered the summer flirting with the idea of finishing a season with a losing record for the first time in 11 years. They were a game over .500 after winning the first game back from the All-Star break.

But then things fell apart, and quickly. The Phillies went on to lose 13 of 14 games following that second-half-opening win and a rare trip to Detroit would represent a weekend-long low point for the fading team.

At Comerica Park, the Phils were outscored 12-1 in the first two games of the series and got walloped 12-4 in the late-July series finale, stretching a losing streak to eight games and leading unofficial club spokesman Jonathan Papelbon to issue his most infamous words in a Phillies uniform, saying he “didn’t come here for this.”

The good news: a sour Papelbon and a roster full of fading veterans is almost all the way turned over to a core of younger players. The bad news: Detroit’s ballpark remains a bit of a house of horrors for the Phils.

Former Cy Young Award winner and American League MVP Justin Verlander looked like his old self, holding the Phillies to three hits in eight shutout innings as the Detroit Tigers took the second game, 3-1.

The Phillies will have to pull out a victory on Wednesday to avoid being on the wrong end of a three-game sweep for the first time since the 2016 season-opening series in Cincinnati.

But heading into that game, the Phillies are suddenly playing their worst baseball of the young season. The Phils (25-21) have lost six of their last nine games.

And regardless if the Phillies avoid a sweep on Wednesday, the schedule will not get any easier once they leave Comerica Park. The Phillies leave Detroit for a holiday weekend series at Wrigley Field against the team with baseball’s best record (the Chicago Cubs) before returning home to host the team with the second-best record in the National League (the Washington Nationals).

Looking a bit further ahead: after a four-game respite with the Milwaukee Brewers following the Nats at Citizens Bank Park, the Cubs arrive in South Philly for three games before the Phils head out on another road trip to take on Washington and the high-powered Toronto Blue Jays.

The over-achieving Phillies have surely been fun to watch nearly two months into 2016, but reality might be setting in for a team without an offense capable of keeping up with the Cubbies and Tigers and Nats. Oh my.

  • Maikel Franco was mostly impressive at third base as a rookie last summer, showing off a howitzer of an arm while also making up for slow feet with a quick first step on balls hit in his direction. But he’s shown signs of the player some minor league evaluators questioned this year, particularly in the last week (most notably on Friday night ... and again Tuesday in Detroit).

On Tuesday, the Phils entered the bottom half of the sixth within striking distance of the Tigers lead, trailing 1-0. But Franco failed to get in front of a ball off the bat of J.D. Martinez with one on and nobody out, on a play the official scorer ruled a double. Later in the inning, he couldn’t get the ball out of his hands on what should have been a routine 5-4-3 double play. Detroit scored two runs in the inning.

  • Ryan Howard snapped an 0-for-18 skid with a single off Verlander to lead off the second inning on Tuesday night. It was Howard’s first single since April 29. It was the longest a Phillies hitter had gone (at least in games started) since Pat Burrell went 15 starts without a base hit in 2007.

Howard came one game started away from tying “Granny” for the all-time franchise mark.

Howard finished the night 1-for-3 and is hitting .160 this season. Once the Phillies are through needing a designated hitter, it might be time for someone in the team’s front office to figure how what to do with Howard.

 • Miguel Cabrera is pretty much Howard’s polar opposite as far as former MVPs with plate discipline go. On Tuesday night, Cabrera swung and miss at a pitch for the first time in nearly a week and then struck out for the first time in 11 days, too.

The former Triple Crown winner was clearly impressed with hard-luck loser Jeremy Hellickson’s effort, giving the Phillies right-hander a thumbs up after clearly being fooled by a changeup in the third inning at-bat.

  • Perhaps Cody Asche could help boost the Phillies offense in the next week (particularly one of the two corner outfield spots that are hitting a combined .204 with two home runs in the team’s 46 games this season). Asche, playing in three straight games for the first time in his rehab, went 2-for-5 with a home run at Double-A Reading on Tuesday night. Asche has two home runs in eight rehab games so far and, earlier on Tuesday, said he was eager to rejoin the Phillies soon and prove he can be a productive everyday player.

The Reading Fightin’ Phils, by the way, made up for their parent team’s lack of offensive punch on Tuesday. Rhys Hoskins hit a walk-off grand slam to lead first place Reading (30-15) to an 11-9 win over Erie. 

Also contributing in the ninth: Roman Quinn (4-for-4, four runs scored) led off the inning with a walk; Asche followed with a single. Dylan Cozens, who doubled and hit his Eastern League-leafing 12th home run earlier in the game, walked to load the bases before Hoskins sent everyone home for the night.

  • Meanwhile at Triple-A, Zach Eflin, who entered the month leading the pack of budding pitching prospects in Allentown, hasn't slowed down in May.

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