David Murphy: Phillies are rotating out of control

Posted: June 14, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — These are the nights when you think back on all of the opportunities squandered earlier in the season, back when the Phillies' rotation was strong and healthy and performing the way all of us have come to expect it to perform.

The 2-1 losses to Pittsburgh and San Diego and Washington and the Dodgers. The 1-0 loss to San Francisco when Cliff Lee pitched 10 scoreless innings. The 5-2 loss in which Roy Halladay held the Mets to two runs in seven innings while striking out seven.

A team built like the Phillies needs to capitalize on those kinds of games, because over the course of most 162-game seasons, there will be stretches like these. The skid continued on Tuesday night at Target Field in an 11-7 loss that saw Kyle Kendrick allow six runs in four innings. The problem now is the margin for error, namely that there is none. The Phillies now are 29-34 and 9.5 games behind the Nationals in the National League East. The first 2 months brought an easy schedule and good starting pitching, and most of that was wasted by a lackluster offense and a porous bullpen. The offense has improved — Tuesday night, it managed 14 hits and produced a couple of rallies — but the gains have been offset by a depleted rotation and a bullpen that is stocked with Triple A arms.

The loss to the Twins, the Phillies' ninth in their last 10 games, marked the fifth time in six games that a starter allowed at least four runs. Over the last 23 games, it has happened 14 times.

Such is life for an inconsistent team. One group slips into a funk just as another is rising out of one.

"The part of it is consistent play, day in and day out," manager Charlie Manuel said. "That's the part we get back to. When we start doing enough to win the games, we will [win them]."

Last season, when Phillies starters allowed four or more runs in just 36 of their 162 games, the Greatest Rotation of All Time seemed impervious to such a skid. But as Kendrick showed last night, the GROAT is no longer. Halladay is on the disabled list with a strained lat muscle that is expected to sideline him through the month of July. Roy Oswalt is pitching his way back into playing shape in the Rangers' minor league system. Vance Worley is fresh off a stint on the disabled list and pitching with a bone chip in his elbow.

None of this should come as a surprise to anybody who follows professional baseball. Last year's rotation was remarkable not just for its performance, but for its ability to withstand a season's worth of wear and tear. Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels made all of their starts. Worley surprised everybody with his spectacular rookie campaign. The good fortune was almost as notable as the depth and talent.

In April, the hope was that the rotation would continue its impressive run of health and dominance as a patchwork offense found its groove. For a time, there was reason to believe. In the first 40 games, a Phillies starter allowed more than three runs only nine times. But then Worley hit the disabled list, and Halladay's health unraveled, and the GROAT devolved into something less extraordinary: still one of the best in the game, but not to the point of invincibility. Now the Phillies find themselves having to rely on facets of the game that have eluded them for long stretches at a time.

The good news — believe it or not, there is some — lies in the performance of an offense that spent Tuesday night mounting repeated charges at the various deficits it faced. In the fourth inning, they scored four two-out runs to cut the Twins' lead to 5-4. They did so at the expense of a pitcher in Nick Blackburn who entered the night with a 7.75 ERA. But they also scored three runs in the sixth inning against Brian Duensing, a solid middle reliever who entered the night with a 2.64 ERA.

That the resilience of the lineup was muted by a shaky bullpen and defense is a scenario that should continue to concern fans and front-office members alike. A two-base fielding error on Hunter Pence. Five runs allowed by the first two relievers out of the bullpen. A 5-4 deficit becoming an 8-4 deficit. An 8-7 deficit growing to 11-7. All of this against a team that entered the night tied for the fewest wins in the American League.

"The game of baseball sometimes happens like that," said centerfielder Shane Victorino. "You just have to stay focused and not even worry about that."

Which brings us back to the rotation, and the fact that what would have been a matchup between Halladay and Blackburn was instead a far less disparate one featuring Kendrick as stopper.

The one answer the Phillies thought they had is now a question mark. On Wednesday, the season continues. n

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, HighCheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at @HighCheese.

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