Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

Close to full health, Phillies no longer look like the worst team in baseball

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Though they still have the worst record in the majors by 3½ games, the 34-62 Phillies aren't playing like the worst team in baseball right now.

Not from an offensive standpoint, not from a starting pitching standpoint, not from a bullpen standpoint.

The Phils' offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers, their fourth win in five games and sixth in the last 10 (see Instant Replay).

Nick Williams homered again, Howie Kendrick had a very Howie Kendrick-like at-bat with the bases loaded, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the trio of Pat Neshek, Joaquin Benoit and Luis Garcia sealed the win.

The Phillies have scored at least five runs in seven straight games, which is something none of their recent division-winning teams did in a single season. It's their longest such streak since May 31-June 7, 2005.

Their starting pitchers have allowed three runs or less in six of the last eight games.

And the Phils' bullpen has the lowest ERA in the majors since June 26 at 2.19.

A lot of things are clicking right now for a team that probably can't play worse than it did in the first half. The Phils' record remains hideous, but there are actually four teams with worse run differentials: the Reds, Blue Jays, Giants and Padres.

"My first year here as a coach was '09, and in no way am I comparing ourselves to that team, but it was reminiscent the way we've been swinging the bats of us coming back and coming from behind and catching up and beating other teams," Pete Mackanin said. "It reminds me to a certain degree."

For much of the season, Mackanin has walked into the Phillies' media room after a loss and said that his hitters aren't living up to their standard. For much of the season, the Phillies have made quick outs and life easy for the opposing pitcher. 

But with Kendrick and Cesar Hernandez back from the DL, with Odubel Herrera hitting .331 since June 1, with Maikel Franco walking as much as he's struck out the last 35 games, and with Williams' power and energy rubbing off on the rest of the team, many different Phillies are playing like they have something to prove.

"Everybody is playing for a job next year," Mackanin said. "Everybody is playing to be part of our future and I think the guys are competing among themselves. It's good to see. Everybody's more aggressive. They're into the games."

The energy added by Williams' arrival on June 30 has been impossible to ignore, though it's kind of a chicken-or-egg thing. Is there added energy because he and so many other guys started hitting, or are they hitting because there's a more positive vibe in the clubhouse and dugout?

"I like to do whatever I can to start the momentum or get guys going," Williams said. "If I do something exciting, they're like, 'Oh, he's playing hard.' But everyone's been hitting and everyone's been just playing the game right and just doing all the little things and that's how we've been able to come out with some victories.

"In close spots with the hitting, we've been able to knock a lot of guys in. It's just that hitting's contagious. I always say when one guy does it, why can't the next? That's how I think of it."

The biggest spot in Sunday's game came with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth inning. With the game tied, the Brewers switched pitchers and Kendrick quickly found himself down 0-2 before singling up the middle to score two runs.

Kendrick has missed 60 games this season and it's been frustrating for him because he's been so locked-in when he's played. After picking up two more hits Sunday, he's up to .353 with an .873 OPS. His numbers are rarely sexy because he averages about 10 home runs per season, but a versatile, perennial .290 hitter has value. It's why the Phillies' offseason acquisition of Kendrick made sense and it's why he figures to have some trade value even though Sunday was just his 36th game of the year.

"Not only is he a good hitter but he plays solid defense out there," Mackanin said. "He doesn't have the greatest range but it's not bad. He's average to maybe a tick above average. 

"I'm sure there's a lot of interest in a lot of our guys, (Pat) Neshek, [Kendrick], even (Joaquin) Benoit, (Daniel) Nava. We'll wait and see."

The non-waiver trade deadline is just eight days away and general manager Matt Klentak expects there to be some movement. The Phils' two best trade chips are Kendrick and Neshek and both had productive weekends. Neshek pitched a scoreless seventh inning to lower his ERA to 1.12. He's allowed runs in just two of 43 appearances.

And Kendrick has picked up right where he left off, going 4 for 10 since returning Friday from a hamstring strain.

"If I were scouting for another organization I'd recommend him," Mackanin said of Kendrick. "I'd put an acquire (label) on him."

We'll soon see what that acquire label nets the Phillies. The return won't be huge, but trading Kendrick will allow the Phils to add another young player with upside and open a spot back up for Aaron Altherr, who could return from the DL as early as Wednesday.

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 3

Instant Replay: Phillies 6, Brewers 3

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After winning just one of their last 20 series of at least three games from April 24 through July 16, the Phillies have now won two in a row.

The offense stayed hot Sunday afternoon in a 6-3 win over the Brewers. It was the seventh straight game the Phillies scored at least five runs, their longest single-season streak since 2005. Yes, 2005.

Nick Williams hit another home run, Howie Kendrick came up clutch, Jerad Eickhoff spun a quality start and the bullpen that owns the majors' best ERA since June 26 made the lead stand up.

The Phillies are 34-62 as they welcome in the relentless bats of the Houston Astros.

Starting pitching report
Eickhoff had an efficient and mostly stress-free afternoon, allowing two runs on just three hits and facing the minimum in four of his six innings.

Eickhoff's only two walks came in the fifth inning and both Brewers came around to score on Jonathan Villar's bloop single over third base. 

Eickhoff (2-7, 4.71) struck out six and finished his outing by getting Domingo Santana to ground into a double play.

Eickhoff has been very good in two of his three starts since returning from a back strain, striking out 22 in 17 innings.

Brewers right-hander Junior Guerra, their opening day starter, lasted just four innings and was lifted in the fifth with the bases loaded and no outs. All three runs came around to score.

Guerra walked three, struck out three and didn't have any 1-2-3 innings.

Bullpen report
Pat Neshek pitched yet another scoreless inning (with two strikeouts) to lower his ERA to 1.12. The Phillies' top trade candidate has allowed runs in only two of his 43 appearances this season.

Joaquin Benoit allowed a run in the eighth on Ryan Braun's opposite-field double.

Luis Garcia picked up his first save since 2015 with a perfect ninth inning. Hector Neris had pitched two days in a row, and Garcia has been lights-out of late so it was an easy decision for Pete Mackanin.

Garcia's last 15 appearances: 17⅓ scoreless innings, seven hits, 17 strikeouts.

At the plate
The Phillies' four-run rally in the fifth inning was started by an Eickhoff single. He entered Sunday with just one career multi-hit game before singling in each of his two at-bats.

Kendrick had the key hit in the fifth, a bases-loaded single up the middle to plate two runs. 

Williams, who hit a two-run homer an inning earlier, drove in a third run with a groundball that Brewers shortstop Orlando Arcia failed to glove. 

Odubel Herrera capped it off with an RBI single over the shortstop's head.

Williams continues to do major damage to left and center field. His opposite-field home run off Guerra in the fourth inning made him 21 for 39 (.538) with four homers, four doubles and two triples when going up the middle or to the opposite field.

Beyond their record, the Phillies have looked like the worst team in baseball for much of this season, but not right now. With Cesar Hernandez and Kendrick back, Williams and Herrera raking and Maikel Franco seeing the ball well, this lineup is pretty deep at the moment.

Franco walked twice, flipping the bat excitedly after the second free pass. Over his last 35 games, Franco has as many walks (15) as strikeouts.

Up next
The Phillies' 10-game homestand continues with a series against the American League-best Houston Astros (65-32). 

All three games are 7:05 p.m. start times.

Monday: Vince Velasquez (2-5, 5.14) vs. Brad Peacock (8-1, 2.49)

Tuesday: Nick Pivetta (3-5, 5.58) vs. Charlie Morton (7-4, 4.18)

Wednesday: Aaron Nola (7-6, 3.38) vs. Mike Fiers (7-4, 3.59)

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

With evolving changeup and 4-pitch mix, Aaron Nola raising his own ceiling

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Once upon a time, Cole Hamels was a two-pitch pitcher: fastball and changeup. The changeup was so good so consistently that it didn't matter that Hamels' curveball command was often shaky. Two very good pitches were enough.

It wasn't until Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay arrived that Hamels began incorporating a fourth pitch, the cutter, and along the way, his curveball command improved substantially. Suddenly, a two-pitch lefty had a legitimate four-pitch mix and it took him to another level.

Watching Aaron Nola dominate the Brewers in Friday night's 6-1 Phillies win (see Instant Replay), Hamels' evolution came to mind. Nola allowed one run and struck out nine over seven innings, at one point whiffing eight of nine Brewers. And he did with a four-pitch mix that included 31 sinkers, 27 fastballs, 20 changeups and 18 curveballs.

It's no longer sinker-curveball only with Nola. He's now giving his opponents more to worry about in the form of additional velocity on the fastball and a changeup that is becoming a money pitch.

"Nola was outstanding. He's been working on that changeup all year and it's really one of his better pitches right now," manager Pete Mackanin said. 

With a four-seam fastball that has been maxing out at 95 mph lately, a curveball that buckles hitters from both sides of the plate, a sinker with wicked two-seam movement and a changeup that he's beginning to feel comfortable throwing to righties and lefties alike, Nola may be making his jump to the next level before our very eyes.

"No question about it," Mackanin said. "That changeup, he threw a ton of them tonight to righties and lefties. I talked to him when we took him out of the game and he was real excited about throwing the changeup not just to lefties but to right-handers as well. If he can do that with the rest of the arsenal that he has, I expect a real good performance from him every time out."

The win made Nola 7-6 with a 3.38 ERA, which essentially means he's given up three runs every eight innings. Any team will take that from a starting pitcher. 

Over his last six starts, Nola has been lights-out — 1.70 ERA, .190 opponents' batting average, 50 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings. Perhaps most impressively, he's held his opponents to a .118 batting average with runners in scoring position, second in the National League over that span to only Clayton Kershaw.

"My changeup ... I'm feeling consistent with it right now," Nola said. "It's evolved. I really didn't have much of a feel for my changeup [when I first came up]. It's a thing I worked on in spring training a lot this year, threw it in counts when I usually wouldn't. That's what spring training is for and I think it helped."

The changeup is a feel pitch and its success is usually dictated by the pitcher's arm angle and speed. If he throws it the same way he throws a fastball, that's where the deception of the slower speed comes into play. Nola has worked hard on those aspects of the pitch and it's clearly paying off.

Nola induced 15 swinging strikes on the night, six of them on changeups and five on curveballs. His strikeout numbers stand out because he was not billed as this kind of pitcher when he was drafted or was coming up through the Phillies' system. In the minor leagues, Nola struck out 7.6 batters per nine innings. In the majors, he's struck out 277 in 275 innings (9.1 per nine).

"I'm real happy about the way he's come along, especially after the elbow issues," Mackanin said. "He has increased velocity. His pitches are crisper. He's better now than before. It's really a nice jump for him to make."

Indeed it is. Perhaps Nola's ceiling is higher than No. 2 starter.