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First place Phillies have back-end rotation questions

Nick Pivetta‘s struggles continued during Friday night’s blowout victory in Pittsburgh.

The Phillies crushed the host Pirates by a 17-5 score on Friday night at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The win moved the team into first place by percentage points in the National League East Division standings.

It also marked the 15th victory over the club’s last 22 games. Even more recently, the Phils have taken five in a row and seven of their last eight.

There was plenty of good news to go around from an offensive attack that has struggled mightily during most of that winning stretch. For the most part it has been strong pitching, particularly from the starting rotation, that has pushed the Phillies back to contending status.

The news was not all good last night. Starting pitcher Nick Pivetta lasted just 2.2 innings, struggling through 74 pitches in the short outing. He surrendered three runs on five hits while walking two batters. Further, the poor outing directly led to manager Gabe Kapler needing to use six relief pitchers in the opening game of a long road trip.

This was not a one-time aberration performance from Pivetta. The 25-year old right-hander has been struggling mightily for a month and a half now. In fact, only five of his 17 starts all season have resulted in a Quality Start effort: at least six innings pitched, no more than three earned runs allowed.

Pivetta is 0-5 over his last eight starts, and hasn’t won as a starting pitcher since May 21. He has allowed 47 hits, including 13 home runs, and walked 16 opposing batters over 35.2 innings in that span. The Phillies problems at the back of their rotation are not limited to Pivetta.

Vince Velasquez remains on the Disabled List after being drilled on the right arm by a nasty comebacker nearly two weeks ago. No official timetable for his return has been made public.

On Friday, Jim Salisbury with NBC Sports Philadelphia noted that Velasquez “is feeling good and will throw a bullpen session Saturday. If all goes well, he could pitch Wednesday in New York.

In that same piece, Salisbury also reported an update on Jerad Eickhoff, who has been out all season to this point:

“Eickhoff has experienced on-again, off-again tingling in the fingers on his right hand when he throws. He experienced the sensation again while throwing to hitters in Clearwater and will return to Philadelphia to be checked by doctors…The tingling, which first presented itself late last season, has been limited to two fingers. The difference now is Eickhoff felt it while throwing his fastball. He had previously felt it throwing his curveball only.”

Ben Lively received five April starts, but was largely ineffective. He went 0-2 with a 6.85 ERA, allowing 34 hits over 23.2 innings pitched.

Fortunately for the Phillies, they have three reliable starting pitchers at the front of their rotation. Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin have been outstanding. Jake Arrieta has been up and down, but is a proven veteran with a Cy Young Award on his resume.

A look across the current 40-man roster does not reveal many attractive options should the club wish to make a change at the back of the rotation.

There are a couple of potentially attractive options with the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs, should the Phillies choose to go that route. Both 24-year old lefty Cole Irvin and 22-year old righty Enyel De Los Santos are having strong seasons. De Los Santos was just named to the World Team for the upcoming MLB Futures Game showcase event.

Just yesterday, Tom Housenick at The Morning Call speculated that IronPigs starter Drew Anderson could enter the mix: “the lone IronPigs starting pitcher on the Phillies’ 40-man roster, is slated to start tonight against Syracuse. He could fill the void left by injured Vince Velasquez on Sunday or beyond.

To add either Irvin or De Los Santos, the Phillies would need to open a spot on that 40-man roster. This would mean releasing someone, and the ball club might not be at the point just yet where it is willing to make such a move.

Push is going to come to shove sooner rather than later. The Phillies have no off-days in the schedule between now and the MLB All-Star Game break, which begins after next weekend. Built into that stretch is a true doubleheader on Monday in New York.

The full rotation has not yet been released. Arrieta goes on Saturday afternoon, and while the old ‘TBA’ (to be determined) is currently listed for Sunday, that turn should probably to go to Eflin on his normal rest.

Nola will get one of the starts in Monday’s doubleheader. It will be the other Monday start as well as Tuesday’s that will be decision time for the Phillies skipper. If the club decides to go with Nola and Eflin on Monday, the decision comes earlier, with the Sunday start.

The hope right now is that Velasquez will be ready to return next Wednesday for the Mets finale. The club could then give Pivetta another shot against the weak Orioles in Baltimore on Thursday. This would allow the Phillies to end the road trip and roll into the break with Eflin, Nola, and Arrieta next weekend in Miami.

But again, there are starts to be had on either Sunday or Monday, and then definitely on Tuesday. Already with the rotation showing some fraying on the back end, getting through those two games could be a challenge. Keeping the bullpen fresh the rest of this weekend will be especially important.

Could GM Matt Klentak swing a trade as soon as this weekend to bring in an arm such as Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, or Chris Archer? With both Hamels and Happ scheduled to make starts later today, neither would help alleviate the short-term need. Archer is due to start on Monday, however.

Earlier this week, Salisbury quoted Klentak on the Phillies plans as the club finds itself in genuine contending status with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline drawing closer:

“We’re going to pursue a lot of different avenues, maybe offensively and maybe on the pitching side, and balance that against what our current group of players brings and make the appropriate decisions.”

It will be very interesting to see which decisions the club makes for the two upcoming starts. This may prove to be an opportunity for someone to demonstrate that they deserve a full shot, should Pivetta continue to struggle and/or Velasquez need more recovery time.

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