A year ago, the 2016 Phillies were 9-9 after 18 games in the most unfathomable way — with a minus-23 run differential.
In 2017, the 18-game-old Phillies are also 9-9, but this time they are plus-seven in runs scored.
As they reflect on their still active four-game win streak and prepare to host the Marlins for the first time in a series this weekend, one irrifutable issue has dogged a team that could be even closer to the first-place Nationals in the NL East: pitching woes.
Though starters Jerad Eickhoff and Jeremy Hellickson have been revelations early to be clear, injuries to Clay Buchholz and now Aaron Nola (he was added to the 10-day disabled list Monday) haven't helped the squad with the sixth worst team ERA in all of baseball. They are also the squad that has allowed the third most home runs.
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Many of these opposing long balls have come late in games against the Phillies ailing bullpen, a unit that has seen three different pitchers earn a save and has blown four saves early in the season.
Jeanmar Gomez started in the role he relished in early in 2016 but his late season struggles continued into the new year, as Joaquin Benoit and Hector Neris have shared game-ending duties of late. They've had a bit more success than Gomez — but not much.
"I don't want to name it anything," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said a few days ago, commenting on a potential closer-by-committee decision. "You hear it a lot these days, about how pitchers are being used differently with different teams. I just look at it like this: It's nice to have two guys I trust in the eighth and the ninth. I trust both of those guys. I just seized the opportunity to try it tonight."
Both veteran bullpen arms have made inportant contributions over the last few weeks, as they combine for seven holds and have two of the lowest ERAs on the team.
When things kick off Tuesday against the Marlins, Vince Velasquez will open the series against Wei-Yin Chen in a 7:05 p.m. start. In Game 2, Nola's spot will likely be filled by red-hot prospect Nick Pivetta, who is expected to take Nola's start opposite Edison Volquez. In a Thursday matinee at 1:05 Hellickson will close out the three-game set agains Adam Conley.
A win in the series will have the Phils in good shape prior to heading to Los Angeles and Chicago for a seven-game road trip starting this weekend.