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Can the Phillies pitching hold up under a legitimate pennant race?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s just pretend last night’s 5-0 to the Dodgers never happened, OK?

After all, who knows what would have occurred if a torrential downpour hadn’t interrupted an incredible pitcher’s duel between Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola, one in which the two hurlers combined for 13 strikeouts over 7.1 innings before the rains came? Yes, it snapped the Phils’ 8-game winning streak and left them with a scant one game lead over the Braves in the NL East and a two-game lead over a Mets team that had their own game against the Nationals suspended last night due to similar bad weather.

It’s pretty clear we’re in for a fun and fascinating three-team race down the stretch. While neither the Phils, Mets or Braves are likely to win the World Series, MLB rules dictate one of these franchises wins the division, even if it only takes 85 or fewer wins to get there (I’m taking the under!).

This race to the “top” of the NL East will likely come down to pitching and whether or not the Phillies have enough of it to stand up underneath the wilting push for the postseason that will dominate the last six weeks of the season. Things are pretty hairy right now.

So where do things stand at the moment between the Phillies and their divisional foes?

NL East Pitching Comparison

Team ERA fWAR Starters ERA Starters fWAR Bullpen ERA Bullpen fWAR
Team ERA fWAR Starters ERA Starters fWAR Bullpen ERA Bullpen fWAR
Phillies 4.43 10.7 4.33 10.6 4.75 0.1
Braves 4.05 11.7 3.91 8.8 4.26 2.8
Mets 3.71 12.7 3.51 9.9 3.99 2.8

The Phillies have the worst overall pitching numbers in the division, however, if you look at starting rotations, the Phils appear to have the edge.

There are some important caveats to mention. Much of the Mets’ rotation numbers come from Jacob deGrom’s performance this season. When healthy, he was the best pitcher in the game by a wide margin, and those numbers are factored in here. However, he hasn’t been in the rotation for the last few weeks and is expected to be out throughout August.

In fact, all three teams have been without major contributors in the rotation and will continue to be for the next couple weeks, at least. Here are the way those rotations stand right now.

Current NL East Starting Rotations

Team Starter 1 Starter 2 Starter 3 Starter 4 Starter 5
Team Starter 1 Starter 2 Starter 3 Starter 4 Starter 5
Phillies Zack Wheeler Aaron Nola Kyle Gibson Ranger Suarez TBD
Braves Max Fried Charlie Morton Drew Smyly Kyle Mueller TBD
Mets Marcus Stroman Taijuan Walker Carlos Carrasco Rich Hill Tylor Megill

Atlanta has been without Ian Anderson since July 11, but he made his first rehab start last night and appears on his way back in the next couple weeks, if not sooner. deGrom is scheduled to have another MRI on his arm soon and the team is hopeful he can return in September, but that is no guarantee. The Braves have been aided by a solid stretch of pitching from two off-season acquisitions, Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. Morton has a 2.92 ERA over his last 12 starts, while Smiley’s is 3.32 over the same number of outings, but the back of their rotation is loaded with question marks.

They’re not alone. The Mets aren’t sure what they’re going to get from Carrasco, who is an outstanding pitcher but has only just returned to the rotation (two starts, 8.1 IP, 3.24 ERA). Hill was acquired at the trade deadline from Tampa and has a 4.20 ERA in three starts since joining the Mets, while Megill has pitched well in his first nine starts since being called up from the minors (124 ERA+ in 45 innings). But the front of their rotation is struggling, specifically Walker (9.86 ERA since the All Star break).

Which brings us to the Phillies, who have desperately missed Zach Eflin’s innings over the last few weeks. Eflin threw a bullpen session on Tuesday to test his ailing knee and reportedly felt no pain. But even under the best case scenario, he probably wouldn’t be ready to rejoin the rotation until late August, and early September is probably a safer assumption.

Ineffectiveness by Matt Moore sent him packing to the bullpen, while Vince Velasquez was booted from the rotation and placed on the Injured List not long after (he’s since been deemed ready to return and may be activated this week). Chase Anderson hasn’t pitched five innings in a start since May 11. He simply can’t get anyone out.

It’s getting rough out there, and last night’s rainout didn’t help.

Wheeler is the front-runner for NL Cy Young and Nola’s performance last night was encouraging, but his up-and-down season has befuddled. In order for the Phillies to hold on and win this division, Nola needs to be the co-ace he was expected to be, especially with Eflin hurt. The addition of Kyle Gibson, maligned in some circles (including by me), has been the stabilizing force the rotation desperately needed, but will it be enough?

The bullpen appears to be a bigger issue.

As it stands, there are four Phillies relievers that should almost never be used under any circumstances: Matt Moore, Vince Velasquez, Mauricio Llovera, and Enyel De Los Santos. If Anderson is moved back to the bullpen, make it five. J.D. Hammer has pitched well since he was called up, but total trust in him is not yet warranted. Same for Jose Alvardo, who can dominate but is also highly flammable, and rookie Damon Jones, who has had similar control issues throughout his minor league career.

After a shaky beginning, Ian Kennedy has done well his last two times out. Hector Neris has settled into a set-up role nicely, and Archie Bradley has decided to pitch up to his contract. Connor Brogdon hopes to be back soon, but an exact timetable for him has not been established either.

There is simply a shortage of reliable innings in the Phillies pitching staff until Eflin returns.

There is no August wavier trade deadline this year, so unless there’s a free agent floating around out there, the Phils are going to have to rely on their farm system to get the job done (yes, the Braves released Shane Greene this week, but Dave Dombrowski likely isn’t looking to add an 8.47 ERA into the mix). Unfortunately, the farm system is pretty tapped out at the moment, so there doesn’t appear to be a real solution in sight, other than the internal replacements figuring it out.

So, whether or not the Phils have enough pitching to seal the deal remains to be seen. It helps that neither the Mets nor Braves have lock-down pitching staffs, and the Phillies are built around their offensive prowess anyway. They’ll look to ride an easy schedule, their top three starters, their three best relievers and their top-heavy offense to 85 wins and cross their fingers some other things fall into place.