ATLANTA - The Phillies' wrong-way ride in the National League East standings continued Thursday night with a 12-6 loss to the Atlanta Braves that was troubling in so many ways.
Start with the big picture:
In a span of five weeks, the Phillies have gone from leading the National League East by 3½ games over the Braves and 10 games over the Washington Nationals to third place.
That's right, third-freaking-place and 6½ games out of first.
The Phils, losers of 20 of their last 32, were overtaken for second place in the division on Thursday by the red-hot Nationals, who are 26-10 in their last 36 games. The Phils will see the Nationals right out of the gate after the All-Star break next weekend at Citizens Bank Park. After that, the Phils host the Los Angeles Dodgers, the best team in baseball, for four games.
But first, the Phils have a three-game stop in New York, where they will face the Mets' three best arms, starting with defending NL Cy Young winner, Jacob deGrom, on Friday night.
In other words, there is little relief on the horizon.
Zeroing in on Thursday night's loss, there was much that left you shaking your head in disbelief.
The Phils had 12 hits, but 10 of them were singles.
Meanwhile, 10 of the Braves' 12 hits were for extra bases, including five homers. That's right, Phillies pitching gave up eight homers in the final two games of the three-game series. For the season, the Phils have been tagged for 150 homers in 87 games. That's the most in the NL. The team record for homers allowed is 221 in 2017. The Phillies will blow past that record at their current pace.
"We have to get control of the home run ball," manager Gabe Kapler said. "It's not something that is acceptable to us. This level of play, we can't keep it going. We have to do a better job than this. The first thing we have to get a handle on is keeping the ball in the ballpark."
Kapler once again defended his coaching staff and indicated there are no changes coming.
"We just don't scapegoat people," he said. "It's not who we are. We get back to work and we make adjustments."
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Thursday night's loss was the fact that starter Zach Eflin could not hold an early lead. The Phillies jumped on Braves All-Star right-hander Mike Soroka for four runs in the first inning. The lead was gone two innings into the game. Three innings into the game, the Phillies were down, 7-4. Eflin allowed two of the Braves' five homers, including a three-run shot by Ozzie Albies after a four-pitch, two-out walk to Brian McCann in the third.
Why was Eflin so ineffective?
According to Kapler, it all started with the first batter he faced, Braves' leadoff man Ronald Acuña Jr.
Eflin came out gassing at 96 mph. He needed 13 pitches to strike out Acuña. That battle apparently took a toll on him. He allowed a homer and two doubles in the inning after that.
"He came out with a lot of life on his fastball and with a lot of energy," Kapler said. "I think Acuña wore him down pretty good. He wasn't able to execute his pitches after that.
"It's difficult to pinpoint exactly what happened. But we did see him begin to lose a little velocity. We saw him begin to lose a little life. We saw him begin to lose some command. It doesn't take much when you're facing the Atlanta Braves. They have good hitters. He came out with 95-97 (mph) in that first inning. He actually still maintained some velocity but he wasn't able to get his pitches where he wanted them to go. Ultimately, they did damage on them."
Eflin did not deny that the Acuña at-bat affected him.
"I wouldn't say it necessarily wiped me out, but it definitely kind of knocked me back a little bit," Eflin said. "I think it was like 15 pitches or something. So it was just consistently one after another, one after another. But at the end of the day, I didn't make the pitches that I needed to make. My two-strike pitches were pretty horrible. The fastball leaked when it shouldn't have. It's pretty much it on that."
Eflin is 25 years old and Kapler said he was not hurt. The right-hander has arguably been the Phillies' most consistent starter this season and he'll be important to the club in the second half. If a tough, 13-pitch battle in the first inning on a hot night in Atlanta is going to take that much out of him, this team is really headed for trouble.
Actually, the Phils are already in trouble. And if they're still in it to win it, as was the mantra in spring training, general manager Matt Klentak needs to act quickly with the addition of a couple of difference-making arms and maybe a bat, as well. Alas, it won't be easy to add all that help, but something must be done.
The Phils' problems have manifested themselves in their wrong-way trip down the standings.
It's hard to believe how far they've fallen in five weeks.
"We have work to do," Kapler said. "We get back to work tomorrow. We'll turn the page quickly. One game in isolation is not going to kill us. We have to raise our level of play. We're workers. We're fighters. We do this as a team. We stand together. Tomorrow, we'll come out fighting."
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