And Theyre Off: Flyers Open Abbreviated Season Against Bitter Penguins

And Theyre Off: Flyers Open Abbreviated Season Against Bitter Penguins

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The NHL transitioned from lockout to hockey so fast, we’ve hardly
had enough time to cobble together a proper preview of the season to come. Every
year begins with the same simple yes-or-no question though: is the home team
equipped to compete for a championship?

When it comes to the Flyers, the answer usually seems to be Yeah, but...

2012 doesn’t appear to be any different. Philly’s potent
offense is still among the most dangerous
in the league, but head coach Peter
Laviolette must seek a replacement on the top line, plus fill the role of a
puck-moving defenseman. Speaking of the blueliners, the work stoppage was over
for all of a day when we were already dissecting whether or not this team is deep
enough on the back end.
Then there is eccentric Ilya Bryzgalov in net, good
enough to post a 10-2 won-loss last March en route to setting a franchise
record for consecutive shutout minutes, yet still only manages to finish 32nd
in the NHL with a .909 save percentage.

This squad looks like the definition of yeah, but.

And while the Flyers have plenty of concerns on their own
roster, the Atlantic Division is no picnic, either. The New Jersey Devils lost
Zach Parise to free agency over the summer, but were just in the Stanley Cup
Finals, so they should be tough. The New York Rangers met them in the Eastern
Conference Finals, and added a big-name reinforcement in the name of Rick Nash,
instantly making them the favorites in some eyes. Then there are Sidney Crosby’s
Pittsburgh Penguins, perennially the favorite.

That’s where our season begins today, at the Wells Fargo
Center against the “favorite.” Conveniently that’s where the Penguins’ season
ended last April, in the first round of the playoffs as the “favorite.”

You could say there is no love lost between Philly and
Pittsburgh, but that probably only serves to downplay the animosity between the
two at this point. The rivalry reached its boiling point right before the postseason
even got underway with a feisty encounter that nearly culminated with Lavvy
diving into the opposing team’s bench after Pens’ coach Dan Bylsma. A short
time later, the Flyers were scrapping their way to a 4-2 series victory. They
were winning the fights for the puck, and they were winning most of the actual fights,
too.

As fun as it was to watch though, and as much they undoubtedly
despise black and yellow, the Flyers need to put that series behind them to a
certain extent. The Penguins looked distracted by all of the extra-curriculars
a year ago, taking way too many penalties while tumbling into a 3-0 hole. I
would expect them to walk into the enemy’s building with a renewed more focus
today. They’ve been waiting for this opportunity for almost eight months now.

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Something to watch is how everybody holds up on the ice after
the extended time off and/or apart. The speed and quality of the game stands to
be impacted as guys get used to playing together again, or in some cases playing
again, period. However, given these are two clubs that a) didn’t have a ton of
turnover in the offseason and b) are extremely familiar with one another, we
should be in for a treat of a hockey game – and yeah, a bit of brawling as
well.

As for the Flyers’ yeah-buts, how they answer those
questions remains to be seen over the course of the next 48 games. Yet while
championships normally would be on our minds already this time of year, we wouldn’t
want to take for granted the simple fact that the game is back on the ice
today. There will be plenty of time to hash out what this team is made up, but
for one day at least, we’re just going to enjoy the show.

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

After epically bad game, Odubel Herrera maintains he's 'making good swings'

Don't be shocked if Pete Mackanin gives Odubel Herrera the Maikel Franco treatment this weekend after Herrera's epically bad game Thursday afternoon.

Herrera, batting third for the first time since May 9, went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts in the Phillies' 2-1, extra-inning win over the Rockies (see Instant Replay).

He's the first player in the majors this season to go 0 for 5 with five Ks and the first Phillie to do so since Pat Burrell in September 2008.

(And no, that doesn't mean the Phillies are winning the World Series this season.)

Herrera is in a very bad place right now. He's hitting .226 with a .275 on-base percentage, and he has 28 strikeouts with one walk in May.

But you wouldn't know it from talking to him after the game Thursday. Herrera wasn't downtrodden or beside himself. He was typical Odubel, flashing a few smiles and remaining positive.

"I feel that I am making good swings but I'm just missing the pitches," Herrera said. "But I feel I am swinging the bat well. 

"I don't really know what it is exactly. But I am seeing the ball well. I don't know if it's when I charge at the ball or the timing of my swing. It's definitely at that point. Maybe it has something to do with the balance of the bat and my body. 

"Besides being positive, I have to check the video to see what I'm doing wrong and make some adjustment. But I'm staying positive, for sure."

Herrera and Franco, batting third and fourth, went 1 for 10 with seven strikeouts Thursday. They're both hitting below .230. They're supposed to be cornerstone pieces for the Phillies, so it's extremely troubling. Even if the Phillies were winning games recently it would be troubling.

Mackanin was elusive when asked if he'd consider benching Herrera Friday. But there's no real reason to believe it would do any good anyway. There's a fine line between giving a player time to clear his head and preventing him from having chances to bounce back.

"You know what, let me enjoy this. We'll discuss that tomorrow. Let me smile for a while," Mackanin said. 

"It's a tough decision. That's a tough decision. You wonder if he needs to be in there seeing pitches and batting or does he need time off? I'll think about that."

Herrera did say that he and Franco have leaned on each other during this rough period. They talk and try to motivate each other every day, but right now the results aren't there. Both are swinging wildly at too many pitches out of the strike zone and just making it too easy for opposing pitchers. When that's coming from the middle of your order, you're going to have problems scoring runs. 

On this date a year ago, Herrera was hitting .327 with a .901 OPS. Franco was hitting .260 with a .748 OPS.

Some of the struggles are because of pitchers adjusting to Herrera and Franco as the book on them expands. 

When asked if that's the case for his two young players, Mackanin referenced the Phillies' own adjustment to Rockies slugger Charlie Blackmon.

"I was pretty happy we got to Blackmon, that guy is a heckuva hitter and we pitched him really well today. There's an example of what you're talking about," Mackanin said. "Little by little, we're going to get there. We're going to start playing better."

Like Herrera and Franco, Mackanin has no choice but to think positive and hope for the best. It's a long summer, after all.

Instant Replay: Phillies 2, Rockies 1 (11 innings)

Instant Replay: Phillies 2, Rockies 1 (11 innings)

BOX SCORE

Tommy Joseph hit a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th inning Thursday to score Michael Saunders and snap the Phillies' five-game losing streak with a 2-1 win over the Rockies.

The win is their first victory in a game not started by Jeremy Hellickson since May 1. It also prevented the Phillies from being swept by Colorado.

At 16-29, the Phillies have the second-worst record in the majors. The Rockies, 32-17, have the second-best record in the majors.

Starting pitching report
Vince Velasquez pitched well, allowing one run over five innings to a stacked Rockies lineup, but he again had a short outing because of a high pitch count.

Velasquez put nine men on base and struck out seven. He threw 94 pitches, 70 for strikes.

After Velasquez's last start in Pittsburgh, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said the right-hander's secondary pitches simply need to improve, that he needs to be able to show more than just a mid-90s fastball.

On Thursday, Velasquez threw 72 fastballs, 14 curveballs, four sliders and four changeups. The Rockies swung through only two of those 22 off-speed pitches and went 4 for 6 when putting them in play.

Mackanin left Velasquez in to hit for himself with runners on first and second and no outs in the bottom of the fifth and Velasquez popped out on a sacrifice attempt. Many fans have already questioned the decision, but let's keep in mind Velasquez has handled the bat well. He's 6 for 17 (.353) on the season and tied for the major-league lead in hits among pitchers. He had an infield single in his first at-bat.

Rockies left-hander Tyler Anderson continued the theme of mediocre starting pitchers stymying the Phillies. Anderson allowed just one run on six hits over seven innings with seven strikeouts.

In the series, Rockies starting pitchers allowed three runs in 27 innings. They had a 1.00 ERA, a 0.96 WHIP and more than a strikeout per inning. And these four starters — Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez, Tyler Chatwood and Anderson — entered the series with a combined 5.27 ERA.

Bullpen report
Edubray Ramos, Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit, Hector Neris, Luis Garcia and Jeanmar Gomez each pitched one scoreless inning. It's understandably been overlooked during the Phillies' skid, but the bullpen is finally in a groove. Over their last seven games, Phillies relievers have allowed just two earned runs in 22 2/3 innings for a 0.79 ERA.

Neris threw 10 pitches, all of them strikes. He's allowed one run in 9 2/3 innings since his meltdown at Dodger Stadium.

At the plate
Before the walk-off hit, Joseph stayed hot with a home run off the ivy wall in dead-center to start the bottom of the seventh.

Joseph is hitting .329 in May with six doubles, six homers, 15 RBIs and a .657 slugging percentage. The only first basemen in the majors with a higher slugging percentage this month are Yonder Alonso, Justin Bour and Paul Goldschmidt.

Joseph has now played 148 games with 498 plate appearances in the majors — slightly less than a full season. He's hit .255 with an .804 OPS, 28 home runs and 23 doubles. Those numbers are just above the league average for first basemen over that span.

Batting third, Odubel Herrera went 0 for 5 with five strikeouts. He's the first player in the majors this season to do that and the first Phillie since Pat Burrell in September 2008. Herrera is hitting .226 with a .275 OBP. 

Maikel Franco returned to the lineup after a two-game benching and went 1 for 5, singling up the middle in his first at-bat and flailing at a low-and-away, two-strike breaking ball to strike out with two on and one out in the eighth inning. He then struck out on three pitches to lead off the 11th.

Cameron Rupp walked three times, raising his on-base percentage from .330 to .345.

Up next
The Phillies start a three-game series at home against the Cincinnati Reds, who they haven't seen since the opening week of the season.

Friday, 7:05 p.m. — Aaron Nola (2-1, 3.52) vs. Bronson Arroyo (3-4, 6.75)

Saturday, 4:05 p.m. — Jerad Eickhoff (0-5, 4.70) vs. Scott Feldman (3-4, 3.99)

Sunday, 1:35 p.m. — Zach Eflin (0-2, 5.36) vs. Amir Garrett (3-3, 6.00)