Phillies’ strike-throwing rotation offers a path forward after slow start

PHILADELPHIA — The first three pitches Zack Wheeler threw Wednesday night were fastballs, and none of them were strikes. The game had started almost seven hours after the original scheduled time and it was 48 degrees with stiff winds. It was barely baseball, but both teams wanted to play, and they did.

“The first batter was rough,” Wheeler said after a 4-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. “It felt like I had never thrown a baseball before, so that was cool.”

April baseball is a test of patience; this version of the sport is almost unrecognizable and it’s susceptible to snap judgments. The Philadelphia Phillies are 2-4, extending the franchise’s admirable consistent string of bad starts. They have had a winning record through six games only five times in the last 30 seasons. Their commitment to the bit is remarkable.

“It is what it is,” Wheeler said. “I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Just got to play a little more consistent and we’ll be right where we want to be.”

They are 0-2 in Wheeler starts, and it has little to do with Wheeler. He has allowed one earned run in 12 innings. He has struck out 15 batters and walked one. He pitched Wednesday without his trademark velocity and it forced him to lean more on his offspeed pitches. He allowed three hard-hit balls; two of them resulted in run-scoring hits. Two of the three runs he permitted were unearned because Bryson Stott botched a routine grounder.

It was that kind of night.

The Phillies have not hit. “We’re a better offensive club them than we’re showing, obviously,” manager Rob Thomson said. “I know it’ll come. I have all the confidence in the world in them.”

Some have taken better at-bats than others. The Phillies’ offensive fate is tied to the star hitters, but a longer slump could test their patience in Johan Rojas, who secured his first hit of the season Wednesday on an infield dribbler. Thomson pinch-hit for Rojas in the seventh inning. He has told the young center fielder to be prepared for that whenever the Phillies are trailing and need runs. So, it was not a referendum on the club’s confidence in Rojas.

The lineup is a boom-or-bust group, so nothing in the first games comes as a surprise. Maybe, then, the most valuable conclusions from the initial six games came on the mound. Some horrendous innings against the Atlanta Braves skew the Phillies’ pitching numbers, but it could be worse: The Phillies look like they could have a functional rotation in April.

That is no small thing.

The first six starts of the season have resulted in a 3.73 ERA — and that’s with Aaron Nola’s clunker. He allowed seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. The rotation has combined for 40 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings with four walks and one hit batter.

The Phillies expect big things from their two top-of-the-rotation righties who are signed to massive contracts. They were less sure about Ranger Suárez, Cristopher Sanchez and Spencer Turnbull.

Suárez had a first-inning hiccup in his start. Sanchez retired 11 straight before fading. Turnbull showed a deceptive fastball with some cut and threw competitive secondary pitches.

There was a common denominator.

“No walks,” Thomson said. “The strike-throwing ability. Because the stuff’s there. It’s just a matter of throwing strikes and getting soft contact, early contact. And they’ve been able to do that. And get some whiff when they need it. So it’s been good. I’ve been really happy with that.”

The Phillies, after Thursday’s off day, will play 26 games in 27 days. The next objective for the rotation is more length; the Phillies will need it.

Thomson expects it.

“Yeah,” he said. “Most of the guys lost one start in spring training for one reason or another. So I think, for the most part, all of them are pretty close to their full pitch count.”

The schedule is ripe for a better April. The Phillies took a train after midnight to begin their first road trip — a six-gamer to Washington then St. Louis. The next homestand is 10 games against the Pirates, Rockies and White Sox.

They’ll traverse April with Turnbull in the rotation for most — if not all — of the month. Taijuan Walker (right shoulder impingement) threw a simulated game indoors this week and the Phillies were encouraged, although his velocity is still not where they expect it. They will slow-play Walker’s return. The club does not believe he is seriously hurt; Walker just needs time to round into pitching shape.

If Turnbull pitches like he did in his first outing — five scoreless innings with no walks — there will be no reason to rush Walker.

The bullpen is at least reset after two anticlimatic games. All of the most trusted relievers have had at least one decent outing now. Even Yunior Marte, who entered the season as a middle reliever for low-leverage situations, looks improved. Orion Kerkering remains on track to return next week in St. Louis.

The pitching, this time a year ago, was a mess. The Phillies needed weeks to straighten things. This time, at least, there are legitimate reasons to believe the pitchers can tread water until the offense finds a different gear.

Until then, it’s cold and the Phillies are telling a tale as old as time. They’re reconciling with another slow start to a season.

“I think everybody’s still locked into playing well,” Thomson said, “and getting off to a good start and winning the division.”

(Photo: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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