Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Like a stone, as in the Phillies' playoff hopes are sinking like one. Of course they're not finished, but this is as bad as things have been. Four games under .500 is the furthest below the mark the Fightins have fallen all season, last reaching this low point after a 2-1 loss against San Diego on May 12. The last time they were 8.5 back was June 1... 2007.

Meanwhile, the Nationals own their largest lead of the season in the NL East at three games, and they are starting to build a case for legitimacy. Washington is 13-6 over the past 19, winning six of seven to top it off. Their success prompts a new question: no, not are the Phillies out of it, but at what point does the immediate focus shift to a Wild Card berth?

'07 stands out because, as everybody knows, "the team to beat" went on to win the division that year. However, their remarkable run to the playoffs was aided in great part by their foe at the time, the New York Mets, whose epic collapse enabled the Phils to sneak in on the final day of the season. The Mets watched like helpless bystanders as a seven-game lead melted away over little more than two weeks in September.

It could happen to anyone, I suppose, including the Nationals. There's a big difference in 2012 though, that being Washington is more like Philadelphia in '07 than the present-day Phillies are. Young, hungry, and eager to prove they belong, there's a lot of baseball left to play, but they don't appear to be going anywhere without a fight.

Perhaps the greatest difference is what, or whom, is driving each team? The catalyst for the Nationals during their recent surge has been Bryce Harper, who over the past 19 games has seen his batting average rise from .230 to .295, to go along with 18 runs, four home runs, and 19 RBI. The Phillies, what's left of them anyway, all seem to be asleep at the wheel, and if you're expecting Chase Utley or Ryan Howard to serve as a spark in a similar manner, we're talking about 30-somethings coming off of injuries, not a 19-year-old perennial All Star-in-the-making.

The answer to our question at the top depends on how you feel about the rest of the clubs in the East, but the time has come to admit the Nats could be a force to be reckoned with this year. None of this matters if the Phillies don't start to pick up the pieces themselves, but even if they turn the ship around and fast, they may have given Washington too big of a head start.

Twins (24-35)

Minnesota spent a good portion of the early part of the season as the worst team in baseball, and still own the worst record in the AL, but I wouldn't be chalking up Phils victories just yet. The Twins are 9-3 in their last 12, and have been playing at a plus-.500 clip since mid-May. Theyve been feeding off a lower class of opponents, but it's not like the Fightins are vastly better right now.

The difference for Minnesota has been at the plate, specifically with a young player named Ben Revere. Revere bounced up and down between the big club and the minors, but since his call-up on May 17, he's been one of the more productive hitters in the league. The 24-year-old centerfielder leads the club with a .327 average and nine stolen bases, and for the month of June, he cracks the top five for hits and runs in the American League.

Pitching is their downfall though. The Twins have the worst ERA in the league, and the only starter in their rotation with an ERA under 4.00 is Scott Diamond, who is 5-1 with a 1.61 ERA. Naturally, the Phils will catch the 25-year-old rookie in Game 3.

Blue Jays (31-30)

Toronto has taken a roller-coaster ride to it's .500-ish record. Ranking third in the AL in run production, and second in home runs, the Jays have the ability to break out for double-digit runs on any given night. Their dangerous lineup is powered by RF Jose Bautista and DH Edwin Encarnacion, who are both tied for fourth with an identical 17 home runs and 44 RBI -- though Bautista is more boom or bust, sporting a .228 average this season.

The Blue Jays haven't been able to get consistent production out of their pitching staff though. Unlike the Twins and Orioles, they're not littered with starters who have astronomical earned run averages, but they are lacking that dominant presence. If you can get to those guys, Toronto owns one of the worst bullpens in the league, currently ranked 13th in the AL.

On deck: vs. Colorado, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Pittsburgh, @ Miami

Provorov, Schenn shine in Flyers' last scrimmage before preseason

Provorov, Schenn shine in Flyers' last scrimmage before preseason

VOORHEES, N.J. – Five games.

That’s what the Flyers are facing this coming week, which is why coach Dave Hakstol had his players involved in a full scrimmage Sunday morning at Skate Zone.

“I like it better than practicing,” offered Michael Raffl. “A little more action. A little physical and it gets you in game shape. I enjoyed it.”

The Flyers have two split-squad games on Monday – one in New Jersey against the Devils and other in Brookyln against the Islanders.

The scrimmage was up-tempo. So much so, Raffl and defenseman Will O’Neill were involved in a dangerous collision in the left corner that could have been disastrous with both players getting up slowly, but uninjured, on a puck chase.

“I don’t know, I was coming in hard,” Raffl said. “At first, I thought about playing the body and then I didn’t want to. So I was mixed in-between trying to slow down and there was a lot of contact as I fell into the boards. I felt fine afterwards.”

Raffl hit his neck awkwardly and was lucky to be uninjured. O’Neill took the hit.

“I went into the wall and knew he was coming and tried to be strong on my feet,” said O’Neill, a free agent signed over the summer. “Contact play in a bad area. Tough part of the ice.”

Hakstol held his breath there.

“It could have turned out differently,” he said. “It was kinda awkward play. You’re always happy to see him pop up and come out for another shift right after that.”

Raffl’s gray team won the scrimmage, 2-1, with rookie defenseman Ivan Provorov setting up a play that resulted in Brayden Schenn’s game-winning goal from Wayne Simmonds.

“Good tempo, competitiveness … kind like the first few days where tempo and work levels were good,” Hakstol said of the scrimmage. “It tends to be a little scrambly in those first scrimmages.”

Jordan Weal centered the top line with Schenn on the left. Hakstol has Schenn on the left right now to get him used to playing there again. Once Claude Giroux returns from the World Cup of Hockey, the top line of Schenn-Giroux-Simmonds will be reunited.

“I made the play up there to Simmer and a nice pass by Provy to me and then Simmer back door to Schenn,” Weal said of the game-winning goal. “It felt good ... I’ve played just one game in nine months.

“I’m just trying to get a feel for being on the right side of pucks. It’s not going to come in the first game.”

Weal was impressed with Provorov.

“He’s a really good player,” he said. “You can see it in his skating, his passing. He’s got a lot of confidence. He tore up the WHL and that’s a great league. It’s going to be exciting to see him moving forward.”

Hakstol rated Provorov as “solid and efficient” in the scrimmage.

Loose pucks
Steve Mason worked with Carter Hart in goal … Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz worked for the black team. Mason didn’t give up a goal. “We have eight exhibitions on the schedule and I will get into three or four of those,” he said. “By the time those wrap up, I’ll be where I want to be. Right now, I am feeling great which is a good start.” … Hakstol said Mason won’t play on Monday … Rookie forward Travis Konecny sat the scrimmage out (maintenance day). He said he was given a day off, but Konecny was receiving treatment by the medical staff on Saturday. “I see the trainer every day, I’m fine,” he said. Konecny should play in one of the split-squad games on Monday … Greg Carey had the other goal for the gray squad; Nicolas (cq) Aube-Kubel had the lone goal for the black squad … The defense rotated for both teams. Provorov was with Philippe Myers much of the game … Jakub Voracek practiced on his own. He won’t see action in the first three games and neither will Shayne Gostisbehere because of the World Cup, Hakstol said ... The scrimmage consisted of  two, 25-minute periods with a running clock. Sounds like the Public League, no?

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

Alec Asher's two-seamer shines in another effective outing

NEW YORK -- Alec Asher’s two-seamer was nearly perfect against the Mets on Saturday night — even if the pitching line was attached to his name was decidedly less so.

The rookie exited after five innings with four unearned runs attached to his name — two Phillies’ throwing errors on playable ground balls will do that — but lowered his ERA to 1.66 in a 10-8 victory that was far, far closer than it needed to be.

Lost in the shuffle of the Phillies bullpen’s attempt at self-immolation was just how effective Asher’s newly-developed two-seam fastball was in the early innings against the Mets’ full lineup. The relatively slow pitch — it was sitting around 90 MPH Saturday — generated six popouts during his perfect first trip through the batting order.

“Being able to throw a pitch that’s not straight works wonders,” Asher said. “Last year, I didn’t really have success throwing the four-seam, so just adding that little bit of movement misses barrels, [generates] mishits and gave me a lot of ground balls and weak contact, which is all I can ask for.”

Opponents are batting just .182 off Asher’s two-seamer in his four starts this year, according to data from Fangraphs.com, a complete 180 from his disastrous September call-up in 2015.

In his first major league starts, Asher struggled to establish a mound presence with a four-seamer that nearly touched 95 MPH. Opponents batted .250 and got seven extra-base hits off the four seamer as Asher finished 2015 with an ugly 9.31 ERA.

The Phillies challenged Asher to generative more movement on the pitch and he returned in Spring Training with an entirely new repertoire.

So far, the effort has paid off.

“It’s outstanding. It’s been a real good pitch for him and his changeup,” manager Pete Mackanin said of Asher’s two-seamer. “He didn’t have either pitch last year, and for him to come up with it over the course of the winter and throw those pitches so effectively is huge.”

Asher relied on the changeup to escape the fifth inning — the only high-stress situation he faced all evening.

With four runs already in, a fifth runner poised on third base and a Citi Field crowd beside itself in hopes of a miracle comeback, Asher got pinch-hitter James Loney to top a low changeup out of the zone down the first base line that Tommy Joseph stopped with a dive.

“[I wanted] just to slow the game down and take it pitch by pitch,” Asher said.

Even if Saturday wound up being perhaps a bit more frantic than he would have liked to be, Asher has developed a formula for future success as he prepares for his final start of the season next Friday — also against the Mets — and 2017.

“Just establishing the fastball, commanding both sides of the plate and changing speeds,” he said.

His two-run single in the first inning on Saturday night — his first two career RBIs and, ultimately, the winning margin — was a bonus.

Find great deals on Philadelphia Phillies tickets with TicketIQ. Buy cheap Phillies tickets with no hidden fees for all games on their 2016 schedule.