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Zach Eflin and Nick Pivetta’s struggles put the Phillies in a tough spot

MLB: San Diego Padres at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When Saturday night’s game between the Phillies and Padres began, the team was riding higher than it had in what felt like months.

They had just hired Charlie Manuel to take over as hitting coach, and everyone seemed energized. Bryce Harper’s walk-off grand slam became the signature moment of the 2019 season thus far, the Phils’ offense had awoken and the team was riding a four-game winning streak.

For a little while on Saturday night, it seemed like the good times were going to roll. But after jumping ahead 3-0 after three innings, everything began to unravel.

The Padres scored three, two-out runs in the 4th inning to tie the game, and one inning later scored two more to go ahead 5-3. The Phillies couldn’t muster any more scoring, and dreams of the season’s first five-game winning streak were dashed.

And the blame fell mostly to two men — Zach Eflin and Nick Pivetta.

If the Phillies fail to make the postseason, there will be plenty of people to blame. The inconsistent offense, injuries to the bullpen, Andrew McCutchen’s torn ACL, mistakes by Gabe Kapler and a failure by Matt Klentak to do more at the trade deadline will all get their day in the sun.

But the struggles of Eflin and Pivetta in 2019 (and the starting rotation in general) are perhaps the biggest reason why the Phillies are where they are — 68-64, two games back of the wild card, tied with the Brewers and Mets.

Eflin had a terrific start to the season, compiling a 2.83 ERA in his first 14 starts over 86 innings. But that’s when the season turned downward sharply. Since June 24, Eflin’s ERA is 8.75 over 36 innings, and spent much of the last month in the bullpen after a 10-run outing against the Atlanta Braves on July 27. Eflin claimed his “body felt heavy,” and no, he didn’t take a trip back to 1985.

Saturday night was his first start since being inserted back into the rotation following the season-ending elbow surgery to Jake Arrieta, and things couldn’t have gone much worse.

After getting two outs in the 4th, the Padres had a runner on 1st when Eflin gave up a single to the opposing pitcher (after getting ahead in the count 0-2), an RBI single to Manuel Margot and then a two-run double to Josh Naylor.

Eflin has been told by the team to work on elevating his fastball, which had tried to do early in the season, with some positive results. But as fatigue appeared to set in in June, Eflin’s fastball was getting pounded, and he’s now back to featuring his sinker, a pitch that does not generate swing-and-miss when ahead in the count.

Nick Pivetta, another starter-turned-reliever entered the game and he fared no better. In the 5th, he gave up a single, got a strikeout, walked Hunter Renfroe, then allowed RBI singles to Ty France and Luis Urias. Not exactly household names.

Pivetta has been awful in whatever role the Phillies have placed him in this season, with a 5.42 ERA and a 5.50 FIP in 23 appearances, 13 of them starts. He has looked like a competent relief pitcher at times, but far too inconsistently to be considered reliable. His swinging strike rate is down from 12.0% last year to 9.9% this year, his strikeout rate is down from 27.1% to 20.5% and his walk rate is up from 7.4% to 8.6%.

As a starter, Pivetta’s ERA was 5.74. As a reliever it is 4.15. Strikeouts are up, but so are his walks.

This is two-fifths of the starting rotation that the Phillies have essentially gotten nothing out of over the last two months, and when you combine that with the inconsistency of Vince Velasquez (although he’s stepped up a bit in the last month) and the injury to Arrieta, it’s clear the starting rotation is the main reason the Phils cannot sustain success or establish a long winning streak.

Jason Vargas has helped stop the bleeding a bit, although the Phils have only scored five runs in his four starts, in which he has a 3.91 ERA.

The Phillies were relying heavily on Pivetta and/or Eflin to be an effective big league starter this season, and both have failed miserably. While both are still young (Eflin is 25, Pivetta 26), it’s fair to wonder if either pitcher is in the team’s plans for 2020. At this point, they’ve given the team no reason to save space for them, and their struggles this season have put the Phillies in a really tight spot.

On Episode 311 of “Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh and I discussed all this as well as the wisdom of continuing to hit Rhys Hoskins leadoff, the red-hot Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto, and why the Little League World Series is awesome.