The moment of truth was supposed to arrive Thursday for the Phillies. For months, we looked at the schedule and saw the last 11 games – seven of them against the Atlanta Braves — as the defining point that would determine whether the young Phillies would reach the postseason.
We now know we were wrong. General manager Matt Klentak filled the Phillies' tank with veteran power hitters (Asdrubal Cabrera, Wilson Ramos, Justin Bour, and Jose Bautista) just before and just after the July 31 trade deadline, then watched his corps of young starting pitchers (Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, and Vince Velasquez) run out of gas. That is not the only reason the Phillies went from a 1½-game lead on Aug. 5 to the 5 1/2-game deficit they carried with them on their charter flight to Atlanta following Wednesday night's 4-0 win over the New York Mets at Citizens Bank Park. It's just the primary one.
For all the analytical advances we've seen in baseball during this century, the one thing that still adds up to a lot of wins is outstanding starting pitching. The Phillies' young trio of Eflin, Pivetta, and Velasquez could not provide that this summer, when the games meant the most. Heading into Eflin's start against the Mets, the Phillies' three young starters were a combined 4-11 with a 5.70 ERA since Aug. 5, and the Phillies were 7-15 in their starts.
Add in Jake Arrieta's 4.96 ERA and the team's 2-6 record in the veteran pitcher's last eight starts, and it's easy to understand why this once-promising season got away from the Phillies. Klentak, fully aware that former Phillies Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ were on the trading block, has no regrets and no apologies for his trade-deadline decisions.
"These things, they're never that simple," Klentak said a few days ago. "That's a very binary decision. … We're always looking for where we can generate the biggest impact. At that moment, we felt like our rotation was in good shape. Look, I know what some of the starters that were traded have done in the month of August and the first part of September. I've seen that. I'm not blind. But I know what our guys have done."
Even though Klentak is aware, we'll still give you the numbers on Hamels and Happ since they were traded. Hamels went into Wednesday night at 4-0 with a 1.57 ERA, but gave up seven runs in a losing effort. But the Cubs are still 7-3 in his 10 starts. Happ is 6-0 with a 2.39 ERA, and the New York Yankees are 8-1 in his nine starts. There's no guarantee either one would have done as well with the Phillies, who can be offensively and defensively challenged.
There is a guarantee, however, that if either one did do as well with the Phillies that the next four games in Atlanta would be a lot more interesting.
It was nice that Eflin delivered a second straight solid start Wednesday night, giving the Phillies five scoreless innings against the Mets. He improved to 11-7, lowered his ERA to 4.09, and the future looks promising for the 24-year-old righthander. There's also no denying that Eflin, Velasquez, and Pivetta all have quality arms and pitched well at various times of the season. They just did not pitch well at the most crucial point, and that's why Thursday's series opener against the Braves is intriguing only to those who have not done the math.
Again, we are here to help. If the Phillies sweep the four-game series in Atlanta, they will still trail the Braves by 1½ games with seven games to play. At that point, they have to play four games in Colorado, where the Rockies are 41-33 this season, and where the Phillies are 7-10 over the last five seasons. The Rockies are also fighting for their playoff lives.
It will take a miracle for the Phillies to be within three games when they host the Braves for the final three games of the season, but they did help their chances a little by getting their first series win over the Mets this season. Now, Velasquez and Pivetta will be the first two pitchers up when the Phillies face the Braves in two must-win games Thursday and Friday. If nothing else, it would be a good sign for the Phillies' future if they could win these next two games when Velasquez and Pivetta are starting. Eflin showed the way against the Mets.
"We're as confident in those guys and their futures today as we were on July 31," Klentak said.