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  • The Phillies rotation is folding along with the rest of the team, so Philadelphia can't afford to shut down an ailing Jake Arrieta.
By Stephanie Apstein
July 18, 2019

PHILADELPHIA — The most ardent Phillies fan in America sits in front of his locker, clutching a printout of an X-ray.

“That’s it right there,” Jake Arrieta says, unnecessarily, as he gestures to the black-and-white image of his right elbow. The knuckle-sized protrusion needs no introduction. “That’s not supposed to be there,” he adds.

If this team would just start winning the way it was supposed to, Arrieta and what he calls a “pretty good marble” of a bone spur could skip a start or two, giving him occasional respites from the searing pain. If the team had played well to open the season, he might have been able to undergo the surgery he badly needs. Instead he sits here, a bearded indictment of his team’s depth.

“If there was a better option, I might shut it down,” he acknowledges. “But we don’t have one.”

Philadelphia employs exactly one reliable starting pitcher, Aaron Nola. He sports a 3.63 ERA; without him, the rotation ERA would be 4.88. And as he has gotten better, the rest of the team has gotten worse: Nola’s ERA is 0.76 since June 15; the rest of the rotation’s is 6.68. Even before Arrieta’s elbow began bothering him, in early June, he had put together only a 3.96 ERA. The last time a non-Nola pitcher recorded a quality start (six or more innings, three or fewer earned runs) was June 29.

The consensus winners of the offseason are 49–46. They sit in third place in the NL East and a half-game out of the second wild-card. They have been outscored by 20 runs this season.

This is not the performance anyone expected on March 2, when $330 million man Bryce Harper mis-buttoned his red-pinstriped jersey atop the home dugout at Bright House Field, the Phillies’ spring-training complex in Clearwater, Fla., and speculated about a parade. “I want to be on Broad Street, in a frickin’ boat, or whatever it is,” he said then.

Instead the ship is taking on water. “It hurts a lot,” Arrieta admits. It’s hard to come up with a perfect analogy for the pain, but imagine being stabbed with a fork, straight through to the bone, each time you move your elbow. Now imagine doing that 100 times per night.

This happened to him once before, in 2011, when he was with the Orioles. He made his last start on July 31, then endured season-ending surgery. Three weeks after he woke up in the recovery room, he recalls now, he was playing catch. A similar timeline this go-round would probably have him starting games two months after the operation. It’s mid-July. He would be unlikely to make an impact in the postseason, should the Phillies get that far.

Arrieta, 33, says the injury has affected his past seven starts, back to June 5. Philadelphia won that game, to extend its division lead to 1 1/2 games over Atlanta. Since that date, the Phillies have gone 14–20. The Braves have gone 25–11. If he had gotten the surgery in early June, he would be almost back by now. But how could he, as he watched his team fall apart around him?

He can barely turn his hand sideways to throw his cutter and his curveball. His fastball velocity is down to 91 mph, from 93 in April. And everyone in baseball knows he is compromised. Still he soldiers on, reducing his between-start throwing to nearly nothing and shelving most of his triceps exercises. He focuses instead on strengthening his shoulder.

His teammates and coaches have noticed the courage with which he continues to work. Pitching coach Chris Young slapped Arrieta in the chest after his last start, five innings of one-run ball against the Nationals. “Not everyone would do that,” Young reminded him.

“If we continue to be close to a wild-card spot, or if we can go on a run where we win seven or eight of 10 and the Braves lose five or six in a row, it can flip-flop pretty quickly,” Arrieta says. “Right now it’s worth it to continue to go on the best that I can. If we get to a situation where it doesn’t look good for us, then maybe I shut it down.”

So Arrieta continues to root for the Phillies. But if the pain gets worse, maybe he should start rooting against them.

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