Five batters into the game Thursday, Andrew McCutchen broke from third base with Bryce Harper caught between first and second. McCutchen dragged his left hand over the plate before the tag for the Phillies’ first steal of home in two years.
And that was it. That was the extent of the offense.
Playing without ailing J.T. Realmuto or banged-up Didi Gregorius, and after a rousing come-from-behind victory in 10 innings one night earlier, the Phillies fell behind when Zach Eflin gave up a pair of two-run home runs in the first inning and were unable to recover against Nationals starter Patrick Corbin in a 5-1 loss in Washington.
Hey, it happens. But a dud in a midweek matinee was easier for the Phillies to swallow considering they won the previous two games and left D.C. having pocketed their first victorious three-game series on the road since Sept. 17-19, 2019, in Atlanta.
“No question at all, we’re happy we won the series,” Eflin said after the Phillies missed a chance for their first three-game road sweep since April 2018. “Wish we could’ve got the one today. I could’ve thrown better in the first inning and kept us in the ballgame. At the end of the day, we won the series and we’re happy about that.”
Indeed, the Phillies are 3-3 on a nine-game road trip that continues Friday night in Dunedin, Fla., against the Toronto Blue Jays. They could be 4-2 if not for having blown three late leads in a 12-inning crusher Saturday night in Atlanta. But they’ve won seven of their last 10 games and are the first National League East team to reach 20 wins.
Realmuto missed his second game in a row — but not for the reason you might have guessed.
The star catcher didn’t play Wednesday night after taking a foul tip off his left knee. Before the Phillies could determine if he would be ready for the series finale, he came down with a stomachache and a fever. MLB protocols required that he be placed on the COVID-19 injured list. He tested negative for the virus, according to manager Joe Girardi, but wasn’t allowed in the clubhouse or to travel with the team to Dunedin because the results of his second test were pending.
“I’m not quite sure how quickly it will be turned around,” Girardi said. “We’re hoping that maybe we get him back [Friday] or the next day.”
Gregorius, meanwhile, was absent after leaving Wednesday night’s game with stiffness in his right elbow. The Phillies did not place him on the injured list, although Girardi indicated the shortstop could miss “a couple of days.”
Without two of their best hitters, the Phillies didn’t stand much chance against Corbin, who entered with a 7.36 ERA and 20 strikeouts in six starts. But the lefty also cranked up his sinker to 93-94 mph after previously sitting at 89-91 mph.
The result: Corbin allowed five hits (four singles) and struck out nine over seven innings. He didn’t allow a runner beyond first base after the first inning, and looked like the coveted free agent who landed a six-year, $140 million deal from the Nationals two years ago after being courted by several teams, including the Phillies.
“I was saying I’m not sure which [pitcher] we’re going to get — the one that’s throwing 89 or the one that’s throwing 91 to 94,” Girardi said. “When it gets to 94 consistently, everything gets better. The slider gets better, his changeup gets better. And that’s what he did.”
It left Eflin with little margin for error, certainly not enough to leave a sinker up and away to Kyle Schwarber or to have a first-pitch slider leak back to the middle of the plate against Josh Bell.
Two homers in one inning were rare for Eflin, who allowed four through his first seven starts. But a five-pitch walk to Starlin Castro sandwiched between Schwarber’s and Bell’s homers was even more unusual. Eflin entered with only three walks in 45⅓ innings.
“It was pretty uncharacteristic,” Eflin said. “I hate giving up walks. They just took advantage of it.”
Corbin quieted an offense that was enjoying a mini-renaissance on the road trip, averaging 6.2 runs per game through the first five games. But the Phillies, who are built to mash, still came into the game ranked ninth in the NL in runs scored (156) and slugging (.402) and 10th in on-base percentage (.319).
Offense is down everywhere this season, with major-league teams averaging 155.7 runs, a .390 slugging percentage, and a .311 on-base percentage. For the Phillies, though, it puts more pressure on the pitching, particularly top-three starters Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Eflin. It also highlights the team’s defensive shortcomings at several positions.
“This is going on all over in baseball,” Girardi said of the offensive downturn. “We see it. Look at the numbers in the lineups. It’s not easy to hit right now, and you’ve got to fight like heck.”
Some days, the fight is more difficult than others.